Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Back to School

Jerry dropped me off at school, I was scared. Just as I had a minor freak-out before heading to France, reviewing all the things expected of me and imagining all the new people who would be judging me, liking me, not liking me . . . my stomach twisted for fear of being an outcast, unwanted and under qualified.

The school is buried in an office park; concrete, steel and glass all standing perfectly still, side by side, on a hill in Culver City. If you were to drive by, no one would suspect a school was nestled among the vacant businesses and abandoned parking structures. There was, though, a colorful, unconventional and overwhelmingly ambitious writing program for few select talents around the world.

The courtyard was empty. The First Year Orientation was the only event planned for the day. I was early.

I roamed the halls a little bit, and ran into my first friend- a gorgeous, black man in an olive green sock hat wearing a satchel. George. His skin was rich like espresso beans, with that glossy shine that that catches the overhead light and forces it to ride his skin. He was immediately friendly, and we discovered we were both first years, asked where the student lounge was and parked ourselves inside of it. The Lounge was also empty, filled only with empty, generic, wood tables and a big glass wall exposing the courtyard.

I wondered if I would fall in love with George, then I wondered if he was gay. I can’t really describe my gaydar. No gay man is alike. Some drag their Ssss, some laugh with a flip of the wrist, some give no indication whatsoever other than being kind and respectful to women. I don’t know which was sparkling from George’s eye; he was tall, engaging, polite, laughed at my jokes and seemed more determined for a proper education than I was.

In the lounge, I confided that I was shopping around for a suitable lover at the school. I said, “Sometimes I can’t tell if they are sloppy and despondent because they are arrogant, or sloppy and despondent because they are sensitive and cool.”

George likes to cap off things with an exhilarating, “Thank you!” Its almost sing song, and makes you feel smart even though you probably aren’t as smart as he is.

He said, “I am gay, so I am in the same boat.”

Sweet relief, he was gay. I felt a weight off my shoulders. I didn’t have to worry about fucking this up. The gays, I always say, are my people. Now, there are evil gay people out there, I have worked for them. There are no absolutes in the universe. However, there is something about the Gay & Lesbian community that jives with me. I feel instantly comfortable around them, part of it may be I am not in sexual competition with the women, the men are never interested and fumbling in the wrong or temporarily right direction with me and, maybe, overall, the tone is always about friendship.

I think it is actually something else. My humor is dirty, blunt, off-beat and almost blindsides people. I do make the effort to tone it down, but it creeps up on even me, popping out my mouth at the perfect moment, exposing a sub-conscious confession with a sarcastic spirit. Some people will say I lack a filter, that is part of it. My humor exposes things that everyone is already thinking. Some people are embarrassed and in denial, and other people feel the relief of laughter, as if diffusing the subliminal time bomb. Usually the people who laugh are Black, Asian, Hispanic, Gay, Transgender or just Foreign. Usually, the people who do not laugh are straight and white.

The ticking time bomb of tension can throw people on opposing sides, those in denial and those so familiar that they aren’t afraid to get the joke. Those are my people.

George said he was 40. I said, “My God, you look young for 40.”

“I was going to say, you look like you are in your early twenties,” he said.

“Thank you. Thank God I am not in my early twenties anymore, or my twenties period. I took everything way too seriously,” I fumbled with the chair, a little disappointed he was gay.

He said, “Thank you! My twenties were a painful blur, and I would never go back, even if I could.”

“We all just want to look like we are in our twenties, but not actually be in them- we have the best of both worlds . . . like vampires,” I said, raising my eyebrows.
He laughed and used the chair to steady himself, “Exactly. Exactly.”

I told him how my parents thought I was lazy and being a writer was some kind of unobtainable dream to avoid real life. He said, “It’s so good being around people going through the same things. I am 40 and going back to school, so I am going through a similar thing.”

Around 7pm, we all walked into the major classroom put together for new student orientation. There were only about 30 or so people in the room, so I was a little surprised. More importantly, there was free food, so George and I made an immediate B-line for the wraps, cold vegetables and sandwiches. We were both starving and waiting for those financial aid checks. I followed him around like a puppy dog. I was intimidated and scared, the room was full of a lot of soft face white people, and especially a lot of white girls- my worst enemy.

George found a seat and I told him I wanted to make sure I sat next to him. He laughed and said, “Of course.” I was a little kid again. With my veggie wrap, I started talking to a white girl with a butch, blond haircut and bold font tattoos floating like clouds of thought on pale skin. The loudest of them advertised the word, “Read” on her bicep. She wore black, bold eye glasses to match.

She asked how I was and my name, and fondling my food, I walked past my seat and settled down next to her, then realized it wasn’t my seat, so said, “I am not at my seat, I guess I am just drawn to you.”

She smiled and said, “I do the same thing.”

I backtracked to cozy up to George, and we heard a presentation on how the two-year academic program works. Now I read through it a while back, but in the foggy haze of the last year, Danny’s suicide, coming off of a month straight of cocaine, Dora and her general insanity, getting back together with Abe, then breaking up again, poverty, France . . . I felt a bit in a daze about things. I really have never gotten a chance to catch up to my life, everything happens so fast, even a student orientation couldn’t orient me.

Looking around at everyone’s name cards, I only saw a few other Creative Non-Fiction students and realized only five or six students were admitted to non-fiction every semester. This put me in a bit of a panic. All my snobbery towards being wait-listed, and I won a very small spot in an elite program with very little writing experience.

We went around introducing ourselves, the task being that we interview each other in pairs, and the interviewer introduce us to the class.  George and I immediately paired up, but had the unfair advantage of an hour together in the lounge beforehand, so, in my opinion, ours was the best.

I started with him, “On one fateful day, George delivered a package to Lee Daniels, the director of “Precious” and “The Paperboy” which is still looking for distribution. Overwhelmed by his physical beauty, Lee Daniels hired George as his personal assistant, but the job only lasted one day because Lee sent George to get a sandwich at Subway with far too many toppings and omissions, so he quit. What was it . . . 17 toppings?”

George laughed, “I never said overwhelmed by my physical beauty.”

I continued, “In 1991, George worked for the Milwaukee Sentinel and was one of the first people to witness the uncovering of Jeffery Dahmer's refrigerator. This happened just around the time when George discovered he was gay, so he considered this a rite of passion . . . (I broke out laughing) excuse me, a rite of passage.”

We crumpled into each other laughing and I heard some chuckling, but the overall feeling in the room was, “Who the fuck is this?”


I continued, “His piece for the Sentinel was a sidebar interviewing children and exploring how they perceive death.”

One of the faculty complimented him in a calm, rich, librarian voice, “Sounds fascinating.”

George introduced me, “She made a documentary on battered women in prison who killed their husbands and are serving life in prison, which is very cool.”

I got the rich, librarian voice of confidence this time.

He finished with, “She married her professor and left him for the manager of a pet food store who thought he was a prophet. “ I sipped my beverage and suddenly dropped it down on the table for punctuation, then said, “That is absolutely true.”

The room felt still in memory, people politely chuckled, but what we put on was a performance. Writers were all about being humble, quiet . . . polite scientists of observation.

Things loosened up a bit shortly thereafter, one girl introduced her partner, “She is a Republican.”


“Just kidding.” We all laughed, my big mouth louder than everyone else’s.

After introductions, we all lined up for our student ID photos, and I found myself in front of a very handsome, Hispanic with tattooed sleeves, crooked teeth and soft brown eyes, named Miguel. He was a high school teacher who always inhaled on pauses in conversation, raising both his eyebrows in resignation for the moment. Those eyes hook you in, and I immediately had fantasies of burning candles, champagne and making love to him, face to face, while he sat in his teacher’s chair.

His interview partner used Miguel’s memorial tattoo for his dead cat as an anecdote for introduction. When I brought it up while in the line for photos, his eyes swam with water, and melted into a deeper brown. He became unsettlingly quiet and I felt my skin prickle with want.

Later, George asked, “Have you decided on someone to keep your eye on? Someone to fall for?” I said , “I have my eye on the high school teacher. He got misty when I brought up his dead cat.”

“Now that’s hot," George said.

The next day I would meet the one, the boy who stole my affections and reduced me to a little girl with a paper heart pinned proudly on her sleeve. I would fall in love at school, and for better or worse, it’s what I was hoping for.

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