I pulled off the exit ramp with the usual dread and apprehension. As usual, the sky was overcast and the traffic on Route 60 was sparse. At this point it’s always a matter of dealing with the melancholy that comes with turning left or with the bittersweetness that comes with driving straight. I drove straight this time.
It’s been three years since I’ve driven through D & F Plaza. The record store that played my demo when I was 14 is gone. The restaurant where I used to eat pancakes with my friends in high school is gone. That place where I used to rent horror films has been torn down. But that damn sidewalk where I used to walk brokenhearted as a teenager is still there.
I secretly loved boys at a time when I was sure I’d be beat to death if anyone found out. I didn’t tell anyone. I barely told myself. It was 1993 and I walked in circles through this damn town. Black combat boots and a heart that was full of blood. I used to talk so fucking loud so no one could hear that heart pounding. Especially the boys it pounded for.
Well I still talk loud sometimes, but now it’s to distract myself from that pounding heart. I haven’t been so lucky in the love department. Meth heads. Criminals. Opportunists. Falling in love has always gotten me in a lot of trouble and at this age I’d rather avoid it all costs. Anytime I hear my heart beating I crank up the volume on the television. I turn up the stereo. I scream at the top of my lungs. For an organ that’s lodged so deeply in my chest it sure has punched me in the head a lot of times.
That first night back in Fredonia I found myself falling asleep on my brother’s concrete floor. His windows were open and even in the summer the western New York nights are cool. The sound of Fredonia’s nighttime hasn’t changed at all. The crickets chirp. The college students are drunk and loud when they walk home from the bars. And then after three A.M. all that’s left are those crickets. No cars. No movement. Just the stillness that once upon a time left me suicidal.
Back in Tampa I never sleep with my windows open. I keep them shut tight and the air conditioner is always running. Even when the world is dreadfully painful it’s always blocked by a closed window pane. When the noise is too loud the drone of the air conditioner drowns it out. Life in Tampa is safe. As I laid on a cement floor in Fredonia, New York I wished I could count to three and be back in my southern bed. At 6 a.m. I fell asleep.
At 2 p.m. the following afternoon my brother and I arrived at Big Donny’s wedding. His bride Wanda looked beautiful. There’s motorcycles lining the driveway. Neighbor Virginia is still alive and glowing, as usual. I see now that Big Donny has found a life and a wife that is more appropriate for him.
I glanced bittersweetly at the house where I grew up. I knew that moment that it no longer belonged to me. A new family has moved in. New memories are being made and they don’t involve my spirit. When I walked away from that wedding I knew I had to surrender all my ties. Different curtains were hanging in the window. A different door mat was on the porch. I physically moved out fourteen years ago but it was time to force my ghost to leave now too.
My brother and I didn’t go to Big Donny and Wanda’s reception. We ate subs on a hillside and talked and laughed by ourselves. We drove through the country and I played Madonna. This time it was “M.D.N.A.” and not “Bedtime Stories”. When I played Stevie Nicks it was “In Your Dreams” and not “Bella Donna”. These days Madonna’s got a few more wrinkles and Stevie’s voice is a lot lower. And the biggest different between myself in 1994 and 2012 is how I use my hands. In 1994 I was trying to grip things I couldn’t hold onto, no matter how hard I tried. And in 2012, I am trying to pry open my knuckles to finally let go of those very same things. I can’t seem to let them go of them, no matter how hard I try.
Hours later I found myself on the same cement floor trying to sleep. My brother was in his bedroom talking on the phone to his girlfriend. At 5:30 a.m. the crickets are harshly interrupted by the receipt of a text message on my phone. It’s from Brenden.
Brenden and I went to high school together and although he also left Fredonia, unlike me he returned. Brenden is a bit older, straight, and he has a cute girlfriend. We’ve stayed in touch off and on through the years. I’ve been known to sexually harass him via text at inappropriate hours of the morning. And many times he will text me at 5 a.m. just to say goodnight. We’ve flirted with the idea of doing things his girlfriend could never find out about. He always insists the next morning that it will never ever happen.
But now it was May 2012. I was laying on a cement floor and I was a five-minute car ride from Brenden. He had just gotten home from the bar and he was drunk. He tells me to come over. He tells me there will be no funny business. And if we don’t hang out now...then when?
Driving through the streets of Fredonia at 6:00 am I felt fatigued by lack of sleep and overload of emotion. The sun was rising and the suffocatingly empty streets were bathed by a warm blanket of northern light. These are the streets where I grew up. These are the streets where I rode a school bus at 16 and most the kids called me a faggot. And these are the streets where I was driving at 37 to hang out with a straight guy I could fall in love with if I didn’t know better.
When I pulled up to his house, Brenden was walking his dog. He looked the same. In many ways it’s as if the 1990's never left my hometown. The bitchy girls still have big bangs and the cool guys still wear metal tees and backwards baseball caps. Brenden looked beautiful in his hat and tee. I pet his dog and then I put my arms around him. The sunlit yards are empty and not a soul bears witness to this strange dude driving back from 14 years ago and giving his old friend a hug.
Minutes later I am inside Brenden’s house. He still lives with his family, but of course they are out of town. If my peers in Fredonia look straight out of ‘93, then houses they live in look straight out of ‘75. I find myself in a universe of overstuffed couches and orange shag carpets. I find myself in a kitchen with cold green linoleum and unintentionally retro curtains. And I find myself in Brenden’s arms watching TV at 7:30 am.
I stayed in those arms for 45 minutes. I tried to talk him into being dirty, but he wouldn’t budge. He just hugged me. For the first time in my life I stopped trying to have sex and I just let myself be held. I allowed myself to fall deeply into the safety of an embrace that was sincere and it was warm.
I was miles away from Tampa. Miles away from those boys who never write me back or those who led me on or those who just want my money but never have any time to be good friends. Through his hug I could feel Brenden caring about me as a human being in a way that no man in Tampa ever has. I never wanted to leave that couch. Ever.
Then it was 8 a.m. Brenden had to go to bed. I had a flight to catch.
Brenden walked me back to my rental car. His dog came with us. One last hug and then I pulled away. I cried but he didn’t see.
Driving through that silent morning I felt haunted and full of questions. What if I had never left that town? What would my life have been like if a man could have held me like that back in 1994? What if those lovely flower beds belonged to me and Brenden and not some ancient Polish woman? What if I could have made a life for myself and a beautiful boy inside one of those lovely old brick houses? It was then, driving through the empty streets of Fredonia at 8:10 a.m., May 2012, that the most brutal truth of my life hit me. I never wanted to leave that fucking town. I never wanted to go. I just had to. Or else I would have died.
It’s February 2013. I am in Tampa and my windows are shut. My heater is on and I can’t hear anything that’s happening outside. I text a lot of guys tonight but none of them text me back. I keep checking my phone. Nothing. I know in Fredonia tonight all those perfect yards are covered with snow. May one snowflake fall for me, and that life I never lived there.