On Turning Forty

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Chapter Three: Birth(day) Pains

Teenage boys do weird things when they gather together. My ragtag group of friends were an interesting mix of Dungeons&Dragons and Nirvana. Thespian Society nerds who played in band and orchestra. People who went on to become doctors and architects, musicians and professors, devoted fathers and loving partners. What we call good people. But at this time, kids earnestly trying on identities and pursuing the weird.

And as I think upon it, no small dose of unintentionally homoerotic activities. We were the first generation to grow up with parents openly gay; we lived in a community that valued the arts and expression, where, as the kids no longer say, we could let our freak flags fly. And this group was a perfect mix of nerd, geek, and dork, said in the most loving way; some of us were very smart, taking AP courses like calculus or Music Theory by junior year; others were into esoteric stuff like building motorized airplanes or the history of the SEALS; and all of us watched Monty Python, donned British accents, and push the boundaries of what was acceptable at the time. Well before I came out, I was in the habit of kissing my male friends; they kissed me back, not in a sexual way but rather as an exercise in rebellion. But we were still boys. And we did stupid shit, like cover PVC pipe in padding and duct tape to make swords that we then used to beat the ever-loving snot out of one another. And of course, there was ball tag. I don’t know what it is about men–and I have seen this even among the most heterosexual of males with whom I have spoken–we have almost a compulsive need to make contact with another man’s balls. I have never met a man–now, granted, this is not a question I frequently ask–who did not have a ball tag story. It transcends race, too. Certainly, this is not an exhaustive analysis, but I imagine that most guys reading this most likely are nodding. Because, I think, at the very least all of us have witnessed a ball sniping. You know, when a guy has been plotting all night to tag a certain set of balls, and then, like a crow in a shadow, swooping in for a perfect tag in which the hand is not fully closed, not fully open, where the knuckles shock the orbs with force as the fingers act like a whip and almost split open what my Finnish grandmother would call the kievspussi, the man bag. And all of this to a victim unawares, perhaps holding a beer or trying to work game on some cutie wearing a Tom Waits t-shirt. We made ball tag so lethal, we all finally had to covenant with one another that it was over. No more. There had been too much suffering on all sides, each of us having suffered out own, personal Gettysburgs.

And of course, there was wrestling. Like two nights before my fifteen birthday, when a group of us were wrestling on mattresses put on a concrete basement floor. It was “finished” in that my two friends, brothers both attending YSHS, each had bedrooms with waterbeds. The walls were painted with poetry and images formed in the crucible that was M—‘s mind. He was in my same year, but always just that much better than me in seemingly everything. He got better grades; knew music history I did not; got one of the leads in the musical our freshman year, something almost unheard of given the quality of acting in the high school at that time. I idealized M— in my mind. He was cooler than me; a much better singer; a fearless songwriter; an adept frontman from a young age. We recorded an album together, with the other members of the band. Many of whom were present on the night in question. Zodiak was our name. But those stories will come later. Back to the night in question. Pitch dark room. Boys hopped up on pixie sticks (generally snorted) and Mountain Dew (Diet Coke for me, even back in those days), trying to direct the hormonal energy that turned our brains into phalli.

I recall this evening as the first time I ever nearly passed out from something other than a head blow. The source of the pain, I would discover minutes later, was T–‘s heel. T– was M—‘s older brother. Beautiful voice. A ladies man, which I respected because he had a belly. But it never stopped him from seeing himself as sexy. I wanted that sort of confidence. Over the years, I will tell him, both drunk and sober, that if he had ever liked men I would have married him. Such were not the feelings I experienced on this day. T–‘s heel struck my tailbone as both my legs were curled up, leaving me in the fetal position; his heel struck the tailbone with such force and accuracy, it staved my L-5 and L-4, which impinged my sciatic nerve. My tailbone had a hairline fracture; it permanently moved off-center. The start of lifelong back problems. At the time, it felt like T– had entered me.

I remember being out of breath from pain. You ever feel that sort of pain? Like your body is so instantly exhausted from trying to process the pain that your respiratory system becomes overloaded just so the pain has somewhere to go. I got no sleep on the floor that night, my body resting on the very mattresses that were witness to my agony. I knew that if I told my parents how bad it was, the trip to Kings Island I had been promising M— for two years would be a no go. For years I had been bragging to my friends that my sister worked at KI, as I obnoxiously called it, trying to be like the employees, but that again is for another chapter, and I got free tickets. Which I did; it wasn’t a lie, but M— had been promised a trip before that didn’t come through for a reason I have since forgotten. But there was a little sour taste around it, I seem to remember, so this trip was huge. Plus, I had felt like M— was slipping away from me. I was always incredibly jealous of other people who got his attention, so I was so excited to unleash our collected weirdness onto KI and to have stories only he and I would know. I look back now and realize that I was in love with him, but I didn’t know how to process it.

I don’t remember much about the next 36 hours. Because I am a compulsively, perhaps pathologically honest person I told my parents about what had happened, and when they immediately said that I could not go to Kings Island I bawled. I pleaded. I cried so hard that I was sucking for breath and trying to get words out at the same time. Somehow, I convinced them to give me twenty four hours, which of course would put us at the night before my birthday. I recall that this was my first experience with serious pain. I had about six surgeries as a kid (minor; ear tubes; tonsils out) and was susceptible to almost everything that went around, but I never broke anything. I twisted ankles, and once got a piece of glass stuck in my eyelid, but nothing huge. This changed that; for the first, but by no means last, time I felt the excruciating torture that can arise from simply breathing wrong or trying to adjust to a new position. The throbbing pain from my tailbone and lower back was assisted by the increasingly exhausted and tight stabilizer muscles which were trying to account for the inflammation.

I toiled and fretted, feeling equally pained by the physical and emotional injuries I had suffered. It was not right, I felt, that I should be robbed of so seminal an experience. To ride The Beast with M—. To eyeball girls. To break into Primus songs while on line for The Vortex. Gone, all gone. I cried tears of bitterness. As the sun came up, I knew it was done. Finished. Kaput. Only bounding out of bed and being able to mow the lawn would get me to KI. And that was not happening. I managed to toddle my way to the bathroom, once again nearly passing out from the pain as I attempted to sit on the toilet. Shit.

I put it off until lunch. I remember that. Mom insisted that I call M— so that he could make other plans, and I was not going to eat unless I did the right thing. She was sympathetic, I know, but keep in mind that I am her second boy. And my brother got hit by a car. Twice. Different cars at different times, but the same result: cracked skull. He cracked his skull other ways, too, and also managed to get me to scrape most of the skin from my right forearm and left posterior thigh, also in separate instances. By this time, Mom’d been raising boys for over 20 years, but I do recall hearing, at least a few times, Why were you wrestling in the dark with one another? And my earnest, “‘Cause” was not as convincing as I might have hoped.

M— was not as sympathetic. And, like, we’ve talked about it over the years a couple times, generally 10-12 beers into it, a time when Lover Aaron comes out, and confesses any possible slight or sin, apologizes profusely, and insists that he loves you. And M— has apologized and we’ve hugged over it and called ourselves idiots, but at the time there was no such grace. I told him the news. He cursed me. Said he knew it was going to happen. That I was just full of shit. I told him I was hurt, that I was really sorry, and that we’d pick another time. He said no. I asked why. He said that I was giving him KI blue balls. And it just went downhill from there. He was mad. I was mad. I spent my birthday pouting. I really don’t remember much about the day. It took me about a week to get back on my feet, but my back was never the same. T– has apologized more times than I can count. But I always tell him, “T–, it’s okay. You’re the only guy in the group who can claim that you have literally put your foot up my ass.”

So last night, as I walked up to Aleta’s Cafe where about forty of my friends were waiting for me as a result of an amazing effort by my lovely wife, who did I see first, sitting at a table, waiting for me? T–. I gave him a big hug, and I thought to myself, I’m glad this big ole sunnavabitch shoved his foot inside me. 


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