Flare, by Toti O'Brien
The antefact remains separated, detached, like a puzzle piece accidentally stored in the wrong box. The scene soaks in a cooler light—as if a distracted editor had misplaced a filter. Continuity is broken.
Nothing too luxurious in the penthouse—just plain, comfortable upper class. It overlooks a bend of the river—a sharp twist, briskly enlarging the view to embrace a wider perspective. A feeling of freedom derives from the expanded landscape, fully enjoyable through the windows occupying two walls of the living room. The curtains are pulled open.
I don’t recall looking at the expanse of roofs and terraces, punctuated by steeples and domes. I must have at least glanced—before one of the leather sofas was courteously pointed to me—because the city sight impregnates my brief recollection, together with a sense of ease, of suspended time. It must have been early evening, or a weekend—mercifulness was in the air. I know it was spring.
The young couple was nice, polite, on the formal side. Both were successful professionals—I don’t recall in which field. I had been warmly recommended by one of my instructors. Though I hadn’t completed my degree, he believed I could cope.
They liked me. I looked trustworthy and confident.
They sounded tired, preoccupied. They looked as if they could use some help. That must have struck a chord. I never saw them again.
Relatives (an uncle and aunt) met me at the train station. We left town by car, deepening into a creamy texture of orchards and strawberry fields. Summer had begun.
An old iron gate opened to a long driveway. The villa loomed at a distance—a backlit, somber silhouette. An old mansion, still upright and fairly maintained, yet transuding age like sweat—discretely, secretly crumbling. Past the gate the atmosphere had changed, taking on a plumbeous tone, a tinge of melancholy. The mood switch was due to the vegetation. Dark fir trees punctuated the lawn, thickening in little groves. Ivy covered most of the house and several adjacent buildings. Various climbers roofed verandas, porches, gazebos, and arbors. Tall hedges of laurel and boxwood isolated secret gardens, miniature mazes. None of it looked unpleasant. On the contrary.
The twin sisters knew the gardens by heart. They adored playing tag or hide-and-seek, endlessly pursuing one another on graveled paths, occasionally tripping on protruding roots or misplaced ornamental bricks, to fall headlong—face forwards—and bounce back without a single tear. Grandma or grandaunt, then, tired of running, ushered them towards the front lawn to play ball in the open. Or to use the swing set, giving the adult-in-charge a moment of rest.
Sometimes Lawrence joined—reluctantly and never for long. He preferred the other side of the estate, occupied by stables, pigsties, chicken coops, toolsheds, tractors, haystacks, and all the farm apparel. These grounds didn’t share the penumbra of the landscaped gardens. Fir trees were only visible in the background, where they formed a forest, past few recently harvested fields. Here everything looked bright, barren, burned at the edges. From the fields came an ocher glare. The red bricks of most constructions, piles of earthen pots, and scarlet-painted machinery, added a rosy tint to the whole.
No shade, thus. Lawrence didn’t care, though his skin was freckled and pale, his eyes light blue. His copper mane, thick and coarse, must have shielded him from the sunbeams it seemed to absorb and refract… furry hair, prickling my hand like a brush. Sweat running down his face, mixing with the snot perpetually dripping from his nostrils, didn’t bother him. Nonchalantly, he licked it all.
We liked one another at first sight. While grandmother and grandaunt recited dos and don’ts (aunt and uncle had left me at the gate to never show up again), Lawrence eagerly pulled my hand, anxious for me to join his present activity. The game took place in his territory of choice, where adults felt uncomfortable due to dirt, dust, lack of abiding corners. He was left to himself most of the time. No risk was involved—I was told—at least in daytime. Deeply absorbed in his play, he would go nowhere. And he wouldn’t do anything dangerous, grandma had said.
Lawrence ran in circles. More precisely he danced, with brisk, jagged, jittery steps organized in recognizable patterns. Without words—he didn’t have any; the congenital disease eating his frontal cortex hadn’t allowed language to form—he signaled that he wanted me to do what he did. Simon says.
I had to be precise. While so engaged in his motions he almost looked possessed, he carefully checked on me. When the quality of my reproduction was unsatisfying, he dropped his arms in consternation. He painstakingly exemplified, made me repeat his gestures, grabbed and guided my limbs—often laughing out loud, though with an exasperated edge. Smiling, sometimes echoing his laughter, I complied to the best of my ability. He was nimble and extremely strong—his fingers endowed with an iron grasp, hands like claws.
Constantly interrupting ourselves for choreography’s sake, it took us more than a half hour to make a circular loop. Well-designed—its perimeter now carved into dirt. We followed the same track over and over, sprinkling our performance with variations. Lawrence introduced them each time with a flash of enthusiasm, genuine joy in his eyes. I mimicked him as accurately as possible. My success filled him with unmistakable happiness.
In the blink of an eye the afternoon was gone. At sunset, Lawrence pushed me into the center of the ring we had traced. It took me a little while to understand he wanted me there—still, captive. I complied—it was a game. My role had briskly changed while his mood had imperceptibly shifted. He was still excited, still happy, but the balance between the two variables had been perturbed. Happiness was dimming, fading together with the sunlight, while excitement picked up pace.
He still ran, but he also turned on himself while he jerked his arms, lifted his knees, stumped his feet in a hastened, gradually exaggerated, more accented manner. He became more vocal—I could hear him breathe noisily. Was he working himself into a trance? Perhaps… Certainly. His trajectory spiraled in, though in a measured, controlled manner. Soon enough he had me entrapped in a sort of cocoon, spinning around me a web of frantic motions. He screamed louder—some laughter still mixing in. He was miming the act of tying me with ropes, fingers clawing at my forearms, my ankles, my neck, digging into my flesh.
I didn’t budge. He was extremely intent, yet not violent. Sure as rock, we were playing. Only, the game had become deadly serious. The one thing I shouldn’t do was break the rules. The ropes, in this case.
When grandaunt called for dinner, waving at us from the front lawn, I was exhausted. As I started off he grabbed me with both arms, pulling me down. He was teary, about to throw a tantrum, I feared. Yet he didn’t mean to hurt me. I pointed at the old lady in the distance: “Look, Lawrence! We must go!” I should have managed a smoother transition—more calibered, more respectful. Breaking my ropes so suddenly broke his heart.
Dinner was in a manner of speaking. Lawrence systematically refused to eat, let alone sit at the table for more than a minute. He had nonetheless exceeded the life span associated with his syndrome. Not only. He was tall for an eight-year old, energetic and strong. How was a total mystery, because he ate almost nothing. At the sight of food, he’d invariably clench his jaw, pucker his lips, run away.
For the time being, nourishing him was one of my tasks. I spent dinnertime hunting him through the fields, trying to get him back to the house. Feeling tired, yet far from defeated.
We returned to the mansion quite late. The twins were in bed, the house dark and silent. Finally calm, he sat on a wooden bench in the kitchen, put his elbow on the table and rested his head on his hand. Eerie quietness—I doubted it would last. Meanwhile I was starving. I took a bottle of milk from the fridge, and two cups. Bread, butter, a thick marmalade. I generously buttered two slices, coated them with the good smelling jam.
Lawrence lifted his head, grabbed a slice with a grin on his face, as if he were stealing it. Playing along, I snatched it back. We unconvincingly staggered around the room, pursuing one another in turns. We sat, then we run some more—on and off. He took some hungry bites, crumbled the rest, licked crumbles off his palms, gulped some milk, spilled some, gulped some more. We remained in the empty unlit kitchen for a long time. It felt cozy—a safe place.
In the following days, we repeated our excursions whenever the place was deserted. Odd hours: three in the afternoon, once lunch had been cleared, before dinner preparations begun. Late evening, or just before dawn. The two of us thrived on milk, bread, butter and jam. It didn’t take me long to realize nothing else was needed.
Before-dawn meals were the easiest, most peaceful for some reason. The peculiar calmness of the wee hours might have helped. Or exhaustion did it. Lawrence never slept.
The large bedroom we were assigned inspired Lawrence with infinite horror, judging by the way his features contracted as we peeked inside. An old abat-jour—its shade brittle and yellow—was lit besides the king-size bed where I was supposed to sleep. Only virtually. A small cot had been pushed against the wall, also next to the lamp. Lawrence would sleep there. So to speak.
At the sight of the room, he was overwhelmed by agitation. We had managed to drag him to the second floor, grandma and grandaunt leading the way. We were now in a long, narrow corridor. Chairs were lined against the walls. Grandma had shut behind her the double door leading to the staircase. A window was at the opposite end. Lawrence’s gaze switched from door to window, and back, till the door was slowly pushed open… His small sisters, clad in outdated, long, lacy nightgowns, had sneaked out of bed to enjoy the novelty of my presence, perhaps.
It was late. Lawrence and I had lingered in the kitchen at out heart’s content, indulging in our anachronistic meal. Cute, happy twin girls climbed on adjacent chairs, perching as if about to attend a puppet show, watch a cartoon. Mindlessly, I collapsed near them. Lawrence joined me instantaneously, cradling in my lap like a baby. He purred. Delighted, his sisters laughed. They must had seen this before.
“He thinks he is your kitten,” they explained.
I was moved by his genuine show of tender affection. I welcomed it, indeed. I reciprocated, gently massaging his neck, where tendons were tense like steel. I brushed his mane with my palms. He kept purring. His feline imitation was amazingly good. Only, he had long overgrown the kitten stage. I felt I was holding a lion cub. Or a tiger.
Right on! I couldn’t avoid yelping with pain. Slyly, he had plugged his teeth in my forearm, biting deep and hard. Somehow, I managed to keep my arm limp until he let go. I surrendered, by instinct, to prevent further struggle. But he didn’t mean evil—the bite was a teaser, an invitation to play. His sisters were giggling.
Meanwhile he had grabbed my hand, clumsily placing it on his head. I brushed his copper hair. He wiggled in my lap.
“He is your kitten!” One of the girls started clapping.
I’m not sure how we coaxed him into bed. I briskly woke up in mine. I was wearing my nightgown, though I didn’t recall putting it on—a long cotton dress, fairly decent. Fully awake, I stared into darkness. All was perfectly quiet. Too quiet. Lawrence’s cot was empty. My heart leaped up to my throat. I jumped out of bed, barefoot on the stairs, barefoot on gravel, on dirt. Instinct carried me towards the stables, the haystacks, where our afternoon play had taken place.
No Lawrence. I proceeded across fields to where the tall trees went wild, morphing into a wood. Was it where I would hide, if I were he?
He was not trying to conceal himself. He sat in full sight, his back against a trunk. He let me take his hand. We walked back very, very slowly. I understood this was the night game he must have elaborated at length. He escaped, surreptitiously waiting for his guardian to fall asleep. He moved silently. He ran, trying to make it as far as possible, as fast as possible. Although his destination (I later verified) were always the woods. Did wilderness call him? Maybe he simply liked the scent of pines, the murmur of branches.
Of course, the pattern was repeated ad libitum. Ad eternity, I mean. Lawrence never slept.
On the following blur of nights and days, punctuated by our chopped meals in the kitchen—milk spilled in rivulets, sliding on marble veins, bread crusts floating like boats, rocks, small islands, butter melting with jam into soft mud—I understood how everything ran in circles. Spirals, I mean, with me attached to the totem pole in the center, helping to secure the rotation—Atlas carrying the world on her bent shoulders. Fine. The job was a paid one.
The daytime game was always the same. I was the prey Lawrence needed to capture, tie up, trap, then dance around. I was offered no active part ever again. The instructions delivered on our first encounter weren’t repeated. Maybe they were a demonstration of his own role, a courtesy. Now I should stick to mine, which wasn’t hard, though slightly claustrophobic.
He never hurt me, besides those sudden bites, finding me unprepared. He was fast like a gunshot—he knew how to surprise me. His jaw locked like a snare snapping on a rabbit paw. My forearms and calves were tattooed with round marks, finely indented. Yes, everything ran in circles. My attitude regarding the bites was still quiet surrender. I should not tense, and he would let go. Yet fear clawed at me underground, in spite of self-control.
Kitten-cradling recurred after sunset—a sweet recapitulation. Escapes into the woods with subsequent return-promenades enlivened our nights. All in all, we walked miles. From night two I took the time to wear sandals. Grandma and grandaunt suggested I block the bedroom door with furniture—closing it with a key wasn’t advisable. I agreed. I wouldn’t feel comfortable in a locked chamber. Claustrophobia was already in the air in spite of our nightly excursions. I could stack chair upon chair… the noise of their un-piling would wake me, should I unwillingly catnap. But would I be able to keep Lawrence inside? Till morning? What for? To give him a fit? Would he go to sleep, were he forbidden to run? Forget it. Following the rules he’d established was best.
Only, long-term sleep deprivation isn’t sustainable.
I collapsed on day four. At sunrise I had made up my mind. We had skipped our before-dawn snack—I couldn’t muster my energy, make it to the kitchen, open the marmalade jar, cut the bread. He must have missed that bit of fuel—he sat aimlessly on a chair, in the corridor. After throwing my few belongings in my backpack I went past him, kissed the top of his head—his hair prickly on my lips. I felt like a traitor. Fucking coward. Only, I could stand it no more.
I am going—yes—right now. I am sorry. Can’t do this for longer.
His relatives were unimpressed. Not even disappointed. Used to this scene, I’m sure. Blasé. They were gathered in the kitchen—twin girls sitting at the table, bedecked with large bibs, spoons dipping into pastel colored mugs. They stared at me, quickly. I thought I saw a tinge of sadness in their eyes. Maybe I was wrong.
No, please. Don’t need a lift to the station. I don’t. Stay.
Down the path I went, past the gate. Don’t look back. Here’s the concrete and out goes your thumb. This will not be long. A truck stopped immediately. The fruit trees along the road sickened me with bittersweet nausea. A bit later, the train lulled me to an irresistible slumber. Only at home, that night, I realized I had left my nightgown under the pillow of the oversized bed. I felt maimed, oppressed by needless regret.
Later, I received a thank you note from the parents. How grateful they were! I had allowed them the nicest weekend in years. They had felt carefree, unburdened, enjoying one another’s company to the full. No nurse, no babysitter had ever lasted three days.
I didn’t buy it.
Purple rings remained on my limbs for a while, like loops of a dismembered chain. Like planets belonging to another, distant galaxy. When I sat in the proximity of someone—a girlfriend, for instance—I’d suddenly twitch, shifting my arm away in protection. Ashamed, I did not try to justify my behavior. Luckily it didn’t last.
In the following months Lawrence’s games kept haunting me. I felt stuck, compelled to revisit his world again and again. I wondered what inspired the rituals he had created for himself, and the good-willing visitor. Where had the prey-catching, pole-tying, mad dancing come from? Was he ever exposed to a movie, a cartoon? Told a story? Did someone read to him? I guessed not. Didn’t think his attention could be captured for long by an outside stimulus.
I suspected the small realm he had discovered pre-existed in his brain. In mine too. He inhabited it, all the time, for lack of an elsewhere language would have provided. Yet he thrived in that primitive universe, where everything circled around because time didn’t exist. As well as good and bad, love and hate didn’t. The division between eating and being eaten was tenuous—prey and predator fluctuated on the edge of oneness, irresolute like the borders of day and night.
In the following months I didn’t show up at the Children Hospital, where I was pursuing my Rehabilitation degree. Almost there, but I left my dissertation unfinished and flunked my last exam. My career went down the drain and I stopped eating, limiting myself to a slice of buttered bread consumed when hunger won me, alone in an empty kitchen. Confronted by the choices of adulthood I vacillated then ran, choosing wilderness. Of course, seeds for my failure had been sown long before.
I heard Lawrence survived yet a few more years, definitely overshooting the mark illness had set for him. How did he? I couldn’t forget his burning drive, the way his fingers or teeth clamped my flesh. As if he were grasping at life, making it very clear he wouldn’t let go. Didn’t want to. Not wasting a minute to sleep. Running out to the woods in order to be rescued, again and again. Burning, burning, burning.
Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Biostories, Colorado Boulevard, Poeticdiversity, and Soundings East.
Compulsion, by Jill Dearman
In 1979, when I was twelve, my father and I went to see The Onion Field, the true story of a couple of low-life crooks who kidnap two policemen and end up killing one of them in a deserted onion field in Bakersfield, California. We sat in the dark on a Saturday afternoon at the Elmwood theatre in Elmhurst, Queens and watched as future stars Ted Danson (one of the cops) and James Woods (one of the robbers) faced off onscreen. Because of the toll my father’s kidney disease took on his body he frequently fell asleep during movies. A movie like The Onion Field, however, with its lurid peek into the world of true crime, kept him awake as he silently rooted for the bad guys––the guys who didn’t have a chance in the straight world––to get away with their crimes. Was “square” the same as “straight?” I wasn’t sure yet. My father’s 1940s lingo was musical but mysterious. How much was snappy jazz and how much was cold hard fact I was too swept away to tell…or to ask.
I too was enamored with the pulpy tale, but couldn’t help wonder about the strange relationship between the James Woods character––slimy Jimmy Smith––and nervous Greg Powell, played by unknown Franklyn Seales.
It was confusing to watch the sexual dynamics of the two crooks onscreen. Although the fast-talking and hypersexualized Jimmy had a wife, he tried to corner nervous Greg every chance he got. I didn’t wonder too much about it; the criminal underworld played by different rules than the straight world. I learned that well enough in Midnight Express. Guys who spent a lot of time in prison needed some release. But did the kind of release they sought behind bars (out of necessity) become part of their desires once they were set free to live on the outside?
We headed over to Jahn’s ice cream parlor after the movie and I got the inside intel on the criminal elements (if not the sexual nuances) of the film, over a chocolate sundae.
My father explained that it was the Little Lindbergh Law that did them in. The world went crazy after Lucky Lindbergh’s baby was kidnapped. He was a big hero––Charles Lindbergh—a great aviator, and also an anti-Semite and a big fan of Hitler. But it was as a flyboy that everyone loved him, and when his baby was kidnapped the newspapers played it up; it was a huge case. At the time the law was hazy; the Lindbergh kidnapping was considered a capital offense in some cases … which meant one thing: the electric chair.
“Anyway,” my father said. “These onion field bandits thought because they kidnapped the cops that then they’d have to kill ’em too, since they’d get the chair either way.
Dad sat across from me in our booth at Jahn’s ice cream parlor. He wiped his thick black-framed reading glasses on a napkin, slipped them on his face then slid a brown paper bag across the table. I held my father’s gaze and reached across the table and pulled a book from the brown paper bag. Compulsion by Meyer Levin. It was a black hardback with a maroon spine and resembled a bible or prayer book.
When my father was a boy he went to Hebrew school; he’d been raised with religion. Compulsion would be my Torah. The hidden secrets of the universe would be revealed in this sacred text, in this fictionalized story based on the true crimes of two homosexual “thrill-killers” from the 1920s … named Leopold and Loeb.
The next weekend, I saw my Dad again, and this time my big sister Penny joined us. Our parents had divorced when I was seven and she was fourteen, and our father became a weekend dad. We went to see Hair, Milos Forman’s adaption of the hippie musical.He slept through most of the film. He stayed awake, however, just long enough to form a strong opinion.
“What’d you think of it?” we asked him on the way back to the car.
He mumbled some angry diatribe which ended with a line about how much he hated the scent of marijuana. “It smells like burning rope.”
Hippies repulsed him. They weren’t his kind of outsiders.
The movie seemed to put him in a bad mood. As we were leaving the Midway theater, a middle-aged woman, engrossed in conversation with a contemporary, accidentally bumped into him.
“Watch it, lady. I’m a sick man.”
My sister and I exchanged looks, unsure if our father would start a scene, as he sometimes did when he was under pressure in a public place. The scene never erupted and we walked to the car in silence. But on another day and another matinee it could be different. He usually cut the line, proclaiming his illness as just cause. Most times people let it go. He had his daughters as props and it wasn’t worth the effort to argue with him. But on occasion if we went into the city to catch a new movie on an opening Saturday, the crowds were less patient. Despite his soft, low voice, he could raise his voice to a roar. He never frightened me, but it was embarrassing.
As we approached his car, he continued to seethe, saying nothing about the lady who bumped into him at the theater, but clearly still replaying the scene in his mind. Or maybe he was pondering more serious crimes, the details of which he’d protected me and my sister from.
My father tied his own noose and the IRS used it to hang him out to dry. He under-reported his cab driving income, didn’t report his tips, and then when he became seriously ill, was forced to live on government benefits and received only the minimum monthly amount.
When we met again the following week, as summer of 1979 wound down, we were alone. I was glad; I’d read Compulsion and was eager to discuss it when Dad picked me up that Saturday. Our first stop was the used book and comic book store on 108th Street on the outskirts of Forest Hills, where I picked up a few old issues of Batman, The Flash and Green Lantern.
Loot in hand, we headed to Eddie’s Sweet Shoppe on Metropolitan. We walked past the candy counter and the spinning metal stools, to a quiet booth in the back. The cracked red vinyl let out a sad gasp as my father sank into it. He had gained weight over the years; his face had grown puffy from his illness. The ’70s were drawing to a close and so was his life, but I did not know that then.
The last memory I have of doing something physically active with him was when I was six, shortly before his kidneys crashed and my parents’ marriage tanked. He taught me to ride a bike then. It seemed that as soon as his hands left my red bicycle and I was able to fly free, his voice called out behind me, “You can do it. You’re doing it Jilly!” … and then, after that he was gone. Sickness transformed him into a ghost of himself. He was like “Deadman”, the comic book character (real name: Boston Brand, a circus aerialist killed by a sniper’s bullet, whose spirit was temporarily able to inhabit the bodies of the living). Of course my father was still alive, yet when I saw him it was like spending time with a spirit, a mystical force. He had ancient wisdom to share, about the city, the world of crime and the world of books and movies.
“So did you read Compulsion?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “It was really good.”
“I knew you’d like it. What was your favorite part?”
“Well, I don’t know if it was my favorite, but it’s the part I keep thinking of: Why did Judd drop his glasses? I mean they had committed the perfect crime, and even though Artie seemed like the wild card, he was able to hold his end together. But Judd––he was so smart––and yet, he must’ve lost his cool or … I don’t know. What do you think?”
“Well, it’s an interesting question. I guess the idea is that sometimes people do things for unconscious reasons.”
“What do you mean, ‘unconscious’?”
“Like a dream, I guess. You do something and it’s you doing it but it feels like another person doing it. Maybe it’s just an accident. Or maybe you don’t remember doing anything, but they all say you did it.”
“Yeah, it is. Well look, it seems like just an accident, right? Judd––who’s actually based on Nathan Leopold––he and Artie––who’s really Dickie Loeb––they plan this crime, which is later called a ‘thrill killing.’ They want to commit the perfect murder, you see? They’re convinced that they’re cool enough characters that they won’t make any mistakes.”
“But Judd––or Leopold––is pretty nervous, sensitive.”
As I said the words I felt for a single moment like Leopold must’ve. What if I’d signed on to do something criminal, all to prove something to my loyal ally, the man I was closest to? Artie––actually Loeb––was the one who really had murder in his heart, who viewed Bobby Franks––the young kid they killed––as a chess piece in their macabre game. Leopold went along for the ride not because he had a passion for blood, but because he had a passion for Loeb. Would I ever feel such passion that I’d do the same?
I knew we shared secrets but it was as if they were written in an ancient language that I could not read. When I opened the book that contained our crimes the words were indecipherable. They contained symbols, like the Hebrew letters he shared with me from his schoolboy days. Letters like “Beit,” a part of my Hebrew name, for my mother’s Aunt Bertha. Beit was not just the second letter of the alphabet; it signified something: home. Since I spent so little time with him before the divorce, I thought of our home, his and mine, as the Dodge Dart he drove. We were constantly in motion, and yet often in silence. Was he plotting the crime of love with another man? Something punishable by denial in my mother’s court of law? Was I imagining myself as a boy wonder like Robin or Spidey, or Leopold or Loeb? And did that mean that I wanted to be with girls? I did not know. But I knew enough to keep my mouth shut, or to speak only in code.
There in Eddie’s Sweet Shoppe I felt the cool, ice cream freeze air on my skin and looked at my father, his thick black-framed glasses in the chest pocket of his flannel shirt, and I felt as if we were planning a murder. I was devoid of passion, utterly cool, like it was all a wild, brainy game. Maybe I was more like Loeb than I thought.
“Yeah, Judd/Leopold is a nervous, sensitive guy. These kids are geniuses, rich kids from good families, but Loeb is the real thrill-seeker. He reads crime books and makes Leopold join him for all sorts of trouble. But Leopold loves birds. He’s an expert on ’em, lectures at colleges about ’em. But his head’s a mess from Loeb stirring him up so much, you see? So maybe, when they’re out there in the woods, not far from where he’s gone ‘birding’, maybe he’s too emotional. And because of that he accidentally loses his glasses. Maybe it was just an accident; maybe he wanted to get them caught cause he couldn’t live with the guilt. Maybe he was mad at Loeb for some reason and wanted to do them both in. But Loeb had no guilt, you see?”
“Is that true? Is that really how they caught them, by tracing the glasses back to Judd…uh…Leopold?”
“Oh, it’s true all right. This is a very famous case from Chicago in the 1920s. It happened before I was born, but it’s a story I’d read about in the papers and magazines a number of times. Then when this Meyer Levin book, Compulsion, came out, I read it and thought it was terrific.”
“When was it published?”
“1956,” he said, pulling his glasses out of his pocket and wiping them clean with a paper napkin. “The year your mother and I were married.”
Leopold and Loeb were fixated on Friedrich Nietzche’s theory of a “Superman,” a God-like person who was above the ordinary laws of ordinary men. My father was fixated on many true crimes but Leopold and Loeb was the big one for him. Did he hypnotize me into an imaginary life of crime? When I got home that day I looked up the word “compulsion” and found: A psychological and usually irrational force that makes somebody do something, often unwillingly. Urge. Need. Desire. Drive.
A couple of years before when my father picked me up from sleepaway camp, he’d filled me in on the goings-on in the city that hot August: Son of Sam, the Black-Out of ’77, lootings, a city gone mad. I was sorry to have missed it, but I’d seen a lot of action myself, away from the overprotective grip of my mother and the isolated world of my father. I’d kissed a black boy named Derek, paid a girl named Andrea Heinbach twenty-five cents a pop to give me hickeys, and stood just yards away from numerous near-tragedies including a boy with the bad luck to get his head cracked open by a tossed rock at a cook-out, and a girl who almost lost the tip of her index finger after slamming a bathroom door on it. Both campers survived. It was thrilling stuff. And any of the above incidents might’ve given my anxious, conventional mother heart-failure But on the day my father picked me up from camp, I was more interested in getting the dope on the very adult chaos and crime I’d missed in New York City, not rehashing the pre-teen dramas of Camp Leah in Bear Mountain.
In 1979, the city was gripped by the case of a missing child. Six-year old Etan Patz lived with his photographer father, his day school teacher mother, and his three young siblings in a loft in Soho. Back then it was just a lot of warehouses, not much residential real estate. According to coverage in the daily tabloids and Channel Five news: on the morning of May 25, 1979, Etan Patz walked two blocks from his apartment building to his school bus stop, but he never made it onto that bus. He was missing all summer, and the newspapers and local stations kept vigilant coverage of the story.
“You hungry? You wanna eat?” he asked.
“Not yet. Do you?”
“I’m not hungry yet either. Do you want to go to Soho? See where they took that kid––Etan Patz?”
I nodded and off we went.
“What do you think happened to him?” I asked, as we cruised down Varick Street and turned left just before the Holland Tunnel.
There’d been talk in the papers of some sicko kidnapping him and doing unspeakable things with the little boy.
“I don’t know. He could be dead by now.”
As we slowly approached the West Broadway bus stop, where Etan Patz never made it to that final bus ride, I felt as if we were Leopold and Loeb, trolling for a young boy to kidnap.
“What if a couple of guys grabbed him, like Leopold and Loeb did with Bobby Franks?”
My father didn’t say anything. Maybe he didn’t hear me; maybe he was lost in his own thoughts.
My father and I shared something which could not be easily detected, which we didn’t even have the exact words for, nor did we need them. Not back then, not when we were together every Saturday, when I was so young, and he was alive. We’d found each other like so many other great partners. (Rex Mason, a soldier-for-hire, is enlisted by Simon Stagg to find the Orb of Ra. He succeeds but is then betrayed by his cohort, Java, and left in the light of the ancient meteor. The light transforms Mason into Metamorpho, the Element Man, giving him the power to transmute his body into any of a wide variety of elemental compounds and form them to his will. Metamorpho’s crimefighting partner, an admirer who deliberately gained his powers, called herself Element Girl. They successfully worked many cases together before her unrequited feelings for him became too much for her to bear.)
My father and I lived in an adolescent boy world of fantasy figures, true crime and other dark, escapist fare. That was our chemistry. Our obsession. Saturday afternoons with my father sometimes felt like prison visits, where I was blessed with intimate time with him, yet forever separated by a thick pane of bulletproof glass. He was a figure of quiet and solitude, of long puffs on Salem cigarettes, and a sphinxlike demeanor. He liked living in his own head; I liked living in mine. Our silence converged like thought bubbles connected in a superhero comic. I was still a kid, and yet my knowledge of kidnappers served as a mainline into my father’s bloodstream.
But years later I would look back on some of the experiences we shared, the movies we saw, the books we read, the comic books we discussed and wonder: what was he trying to tell me? He was an outsider and so was I. We were drawn to violence and crime, but with an underlying thread of subversion. My mother and sister had fantasies about romance and about living a life of ease with men to take care of them.
There was something different about me and about my father. Something that set us apart. Was it the love that dare not speak its name, or something broader—a distrust of the conventional world. A knowledge that at one point or another we’d be caught—for loving members of the same sex, or at least for being unable and uninterested in playing the conventional male and female roles that the world demanded.
And always it was the stories that haunted me: Compulsion, Midnight Express, The Onion Field. He was guilty of something he suspected I might be guilty of too, some sort of unnatural desire that was natural to us. Or else why as I stood on the cusp of adolescence did he share with me so many tales of lust between men, lust that was intertwined with crime, with prison. I don’t think it was a warning, I think it was a test—to see if his adolescent daughter would be shocked by these scenarios. I wasn’t.
I hadn’t done anything, not yet. I longed to experience life, not just through movies, comics, books and records, but out on the streets, in the world. I longed for something; I just didn’t know what yet.
Earlier that year I’d watched a made-for-television movie with my mother called A Question of Love. It starred Jane Alexander and Gena Rowlands as two lesbians, both with children, who live happily together as a couple but keep their relationship somewhat under wraps. When the truth comes out, Rowlands’ husband viciously fights her for custody of their children. I remember laying on the floor, propped up by several pillows, completely absorbed in this story.
I wanted to cry during the movie but I didn’t or couldn’t. I mostly just lay there in quiet shock. And I felt embarrassed for some reason, watching this odd TV movie with my mother. Both Jane Alexander and Gena Rowlands were such good mothers, I didn’t understand why this was happening to them.I thought my mother looked a little like Gena Rowlands, with her (dyed) blonde hair, warm eyes and dignified manner. And I definitely saw myself in tomboy Nancy McKeon, who played one of the children, the confused daughter of Jane Alexander.
“That was very sad, wasn’t it? I don’t know what I would do if I found out one of my children was gay. Send them to a psychiatrist I guess,” my mother said when the movie ended.
I don’t remember feeling anything then, except strangely guilty. I was straight, right? What else was there to be? My mother had made it clear in subtle ways over the years that she had no problem with homosexuals, as long as they didn’t flaunt it openly. But if they came out and demanded respect and equal treatment, well … what did they expect? It’s just not normal. A man, a woman, a marriage, children. That’s what life was about. That’s what people did. My mother didn’t hate homosexuals, she just didn’t understand them, and maybe felt sorry for them if they were willing to get help, willing to change, willing to see that their desires were a sickness, to be treated, in secret, behind closed doors, with compassion but with firmness, like alcoholism. Yet in that moment, I was a little stunned by my mother’s words: “send them to a psychiatrist, I guess.” Whose side was my mother on? Whose side was I on?
It wouldn’t be until a few years later, in high school after Dad died, when a pretty girl named Lisa in a cashmere cowl neck sweater sat on the couch with me and told me what beautiful eyes I had, and how soft my hair was—that I would feel the first hint of that thrill. A hint that I pushed down, not ready to understand it. And it wouldn’t be till a few years after that, away at SUNY Purchase, “the swinging arts school,” that my mother would say “ruined” me when I could experience those thrills with girls like me.
But soon everything was to change: he would only be on this earth for a mere three years longer, and would die under mysterious circumstances.
So I kept my love life a secret. Longing for my father I ferreted out information from Mom. The most loaded was this piece of evidence—what I thought was the smoking gun. Sitting on the couch in our tiny Queens apartment with our scruffy gray poodle Gigi between us, my mother told me of the shadow that hung over her courtship with my father.
“We were both 27 when we got married—that was old in those days.”
They’d met ten months earlier at a Jewish singles dance on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Dad had come from the Bronx, my mother from Brooklyn. My father was a very handsome guy—like Glenn Ford—and he was quiet, polite.
But when he proposed to my mother he said he had to tell her something. Something his own mother made him promise he’d confess.
“What was it?” I asked, petting Gigi’s belly.
“He’d had a nervous breakdown and had been put into a hospital.”
“They gave him electric shock treatment,” she said, lowering her voice. “When Daddy and I were engaged to be married he confessed to me what happened. He was nervous I wouldn’t marry him if I knew, but he said his mother told him he had to tell me. I didn’t know what to think. I was upset. I grew up in a middle class home. I never had any experience with anything like that. I went to our family doctor and he said to me, ‘If you were my daughter I’d tell you to call off the marriage.'”
“But you went through with it. Why?”
“I told my mother about it and she said ‘Darling, don’t worry. He loves you. That’s all that matters.’ My mother was always so sweet like that. She always saw the best in people.”
It took another decade—and another movie—for all the clues to click in my brain.
In 1996 I went with my girlfriend to see The Celluloid Closet, a documentary about how homosexuality hid in plain sight in so many old movies, the same old movies my parents loved. One scene in particular showed an old film clip of a fey young man being held down and given shock treatment, presumably to convert his criminal desires into acceptable ones.
It was in that moment that a thought flashed through me like an electric current. Could my father have been gay? My father may have somehow known who I was, what I was, before I did. Was his x-ray vision strong enough to see into my psyche, my soul, even at that young age?
The next Sunday was Father’s Day. I dialed up Florida, as I always did on Sunday mornings to talk to my now retired mother. Usually we just made small talk. But on this day, I was intent on getting information about my father. My mother was the gatekeeper, and since none of Dad’s pals or kin were still alive or accessible to me, she was my only hope. For all my smooth, slippery sliding on the jazz trombone, there was no easy way to segue into this tune. I suddenly heard the needle scratch across the record.
“You know, it’s Father’s Day and I was thinking about Daddy. Um, do you remember you told me once he was hospitalized …when he was a young man, before you two married? You said he got shock treatment, I think.”
“What was the name of the hospital?”
“Hillside. It’s part of Long Island Jewish.”
“Why was he there?”
“He had a nervous breakdown.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. He had a nervous breakdown.”
“Well, what was he diagnosed with?”
“I don’t know,” a lowering of her voice. “It was serious. Some kind of schizophrenia.”
“Schizophrenia? Are you sure?” I asked. “I never heard anything about this before. You know schizophrenics hear voices. Are you saying that’s what happened?”
“I don’t know, Jill. But yes, there was some talk about him hearing voices. I really don’t know the details about it.”
“Okay, okay. When you were with him, did he have to take any drugs for schizophrenia?”
“Well, I’m pretty sure all schizophrenics are given drugs to take after they’ve been released; it doesn’t just go away.”
“It’s nothing hereditary if that’s what you’re worried about. The doctors said so.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about. I just want to know what happened to him. Didn’t he ever talk to you about it, about what happened before they locked him up, or while he was there?”
“And you didn’t ask?”
“No. It was considered ‘in the past.’ People didn’t talk about things like that back then.”
It was noon-time on a crisp fall Saturday morning in November, days after Bill Clinton was re-elected President and a couple of weeks after my 30th birthday. I opened my mailbox and pulled out a slim package in a manila envelope. The return address read: Hillside Hospital.
These were the records.
Inside lay a form letter, and a rust colored folder that held just a few black pages, with tiny white typewritten notes. Still, that slim volume felt mighty heavy in my hands.
From the beginning the records told me everything I needed to know that I guess somewhere deep inside I knew already. My father, like me, may have been queer. It’s something gay people can sense about each other. Maybe my father sensed it in me and gave me clues to let me know that he was the same in some ways.
Hillside Psychiatric. Queens, New York.
July 8th, 1948.
The patient is a 20-year-old man who comes to the hospital in the company of his mother.
Patient gives a history of illness of three months duration with a fairly sudden onset. At about this time he began to feel quite bothered about going out with girls. He felt that he should, but also felt quite a great deal of difficulty in doing this. He felt shy and reclusive and could not get along well with people.
He began to develop ideas of reference, feeling that people were laughing at him and saying bad things about him, calling him a baby and a fag. He is not able to explain exactly whether or not these were hallucinations.
He also began to feel suspicious of people, would at times get the feeling that they were trying to harm him, although this would be very vague and indefinite and if he were asked directly about it, would deny it after thinking about it and believe that it was only his imagination. He has had feelings at times that people were laughing at him. As a result of all this, he was not able to continue with his work, and he left his job.
Diagnosis: Paranoid Schizophrenic.
He began school at the usual age. He graduated from high school. Since his graduation he had been attending night school at CCNY, aspiring towards entering law school. He gave up going to school shortly before his illness began. Ever since high school, he has been working as a clerk in a law office, where he felt that he got along pretty well, but then began to feel that he was not advancing and he quit his job.
He always had a number of friends, went out with the fellows in groups and took part in whatever they did, but he never felt quite at home, never quite felt that he was an active participant with them. He went along with them because it seemed like the thing to do, but he was always somewhat unsure of himself and never felt too comfortable, and never got a great deal of pleasure from what he was doing. He considers himself to have been too shy all of his life, too sensitive, would worry for a long time if anyone made kiddingly derogatory remarks about him.
When the fellows of his age began to go with girls in high school, he also began to go out. He would observe the routine of calling for the girl, taking her to a movie, buying a soda afterwards and taking her home. He considered that this was the customary way to have a date.
But he felt uncomfortable with the girl and did not enjoy himself very much. He never attempted to have any sex play with them.
August 20th, 1948:
Insulin therapy is being continued and the patient has been receiving electro-convulsive therapy as well.
There has been considerable improvement.
He has become optimistic about his progress, shows a complete insight at the present time into the various delusions that he had, no longer has any feelings that people were looking at him, laughing at him or calling him names. He believes now that this was probably because he was so concerned about himself that he imagined everyone else was too.
He feels that these accusations were really his guilty conscience. At the present time however, he says that he knows of nothing to feel guilty about.
October 1, 1948:
The patient has been transferred to my care following the departure of his doctor from the hospital. When seen in interview the patient presents a rather dull, and monotonous affect of the Schizophrenic.
Psychotherapeutically, it is felt that not much can be accomplished with this patient, because he is rather constricted in his productions.
October 28, 1948:
Yesterday afternoon the patient suddenly decided that he would go home without permission, therefore he left his ward and proceeded to his mother’s home.
The Director was notified and also the family was notified to call us when the patient was located.
October 29, 1948:
At approximately noontime, the patient was returned to the hospital by his mother. After entreaties by the mother to re-admit the patient, the patient was again accepted into the ward. As usual he was unable to give any sort of intelligent discussion as to why he left the hospital. He was rather unperturbed by the whole affair, but quite contrite. He promised in the future to comply with the hospital.
November 18, 1948:
The patient has completely forgotten or has chosen to ignore his old ideas of reference and paranoid delusions.
At the present time he prefers not to discuss what it was that brought him into the hospital but at times he will admit that he thought people were laughing at him and then he realizes that this could not possibly be true. In view of this fact the patient will be given a few weekends at home and his discharge has been scheduled for Nov. 27, 1948.
And so now I knew. But what did I know?
My father, as I’d sensed as a child, did have a secret, a skeleton in his closet. The first lines of these ancient records gave me a clue as to what it was: he thought people were calling him a “fag.” Does this mean he had desires for other men, and if he did that he acted upon them? The records could not tell me the nuances of his experience or the feelings that he held in his heart. But just as any queer can recognize one his own, I could recognize the subtext of these pages, just as I believe he could recognize what was beginning to bud in my heart.
More than anything though, what my father had bequeathed to me was something eternal: a passion for narrative. Like “Rosebud” the final dying word uttered by the (anti) hero in the opening moments of Citizen Kane, this word “fag” was my beloved father’s message to me from beyond the grave. It’s an ugly word when used with hatred, but between queers it’s a term that bonds us.
At the end of Citizen Kane, the reporters seeking to understand the meaning behind Kane’s last word are left stumped, but the audience, sees what they cannot: Rosebud was the name of his beloved boyhood sled. And at the tragic end of this man’s life, it is not all the riches he acquired that matter. All he longs for as he breathes his last breath, is the simplicity and joy of his impoverished childhood.
My father left me no inheritance when he died in 1982, just three years after giving me the book Compulsion. But he did leave me a legacy. He and I may have shared a genetic proclivity, a compulsion, a desire to love the same sex. And for certain we shared an irristible drive, a compulsion, to lose ourselves in the dark flickering pulse of narrative, and to find ourseves—and each other—too.
Jill Dearman is the author of The Great Bravura, a novel, and Bang the Keys (Penguin), a book for writers. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School, and held the position of part-time Professor of Journalism at New York University for ten years. She is an award-winning prose writer whose work has been published in The Brooklyn Rail, New York Stories, North Atlantic Review, The Portland Review, Lilith, and numerous other publications. Jill runs a successful freelance editing / coaching business; a native New Yorker, mystic-about-town, and lifelong film fanatic, she enjoys taking imaginative forays along the seedy side of the street. For more: www.jilldearman.com.