Steve was interesting; unlike anyone I had never met, especially in Springfield. He was somewhat short, with wispy blond hair that was cut in layered steps, and he was lean but athletic, with veiny forearms and biceps that bulged slightly under his Little Caesar’s pizza shirt. He had a trimmed mustache, which wasn’t odd in 1986, when Magnum P.I. mustaches weren’t yet ironic. The only suspicious thing was that he had multiple gold hoops in both ears. I couldn’t remember if it was a right or left earring that meant a person was gay, as nobody at Northeastern High School would come out of the closet for years. He was funny, hysterically funny in fact; cracking jokes while he plied the dough, rolling his eyes at the serious assistant manager who wanted every pizza pie to contain the exact amount of cheese, sauce, and pepperoni—deviating from the scale meant a loss of revenue! This couldn’t happen if Little Caesar’s were to ever usurp Dominoes. The fact that the pizza tasted like the cardboard it was served in didn’t seem to matter.
Steve had recently left the Navy and was working at the pizza place to get enough money to return to San Diego. It was obvious that he was worldlier than all of Livingstone Avenue in Springfield, Ohio. I awkwardly kneaded the dough, weighed the cheese, and constructed pizza boxes, never ending pallets of pizza boxes. I was shy, so I kept to myself, singing my favorite songs and hiding in my car during my breaks so I could listen to WOSU, finding the strength to make a hundred more pizza boxes with college radio.
He asked me what music I listened to and it turned out that he was familiar with the same bands. He had also seen R.E.M. a few years ago at the Wittenberg Field House and he said he saw Husker Du in San Diego. He asked me to go party with him and his friends after work the next time we worked together.
That night, I told Jenny that there was one island of sanity in the Little Caesar’s Pizza shop, one person who didn’t talk about his truck, niggers, or pussy. There was a sense of loathing when it came to the pizza shop, not just due to the awkward anxiety that presented as laziness, the co-workers with their constant hate filled masculine chattering. Jenny said I should go out with him and his friends the coming Friday. She would be working at the drive-in theater, and I could pick her up afterwards.
Friday rolled around and I went to work, flush with my first paycheck, all $85 of it. I was ready to hit the bars. I looked old enough and had a smudged up I.D.; the drinking age was only nineteen at the time. He asked if I wanted to go out after work and I said, “Sure, but I need to leave at midnight to get my girlfriend.”
His eyebrows rose. “Oh, you have a girlfriend? I would have never guessed.”
That’s odd, I thought, replying with, “Why not?”
He laughed and said, “Oh, I just assumed you were gay like me, that’s all.”
For a moment, the world flipped-flopped. Gay, he thinks I’m gay, and furthermore, he’s gay. Nauseated, every assumption I held true was under attack, Maybe I’m gay and don’t know it, I thought. I made excuses and left early, telling him that I would catch him next week.
What now? If I’m gay, then I can’t be in love with Jenny. Is this why I want to move to Columbus? I had been told that Columbus was a “smorgasbord of homos”. Two years prior my father had tried to convince me that Lucifer walked the earth, and that he would try to tempt me, most likely in the guise of a gay man. I paid no heed to this—even as a fifteen year old I knew the absurdity of it, but it may have watered the seed of homophobia that was the norm for any high schooler in rural Ohio.
I picked Jenny up and we went back to the parsonage, where I confessed my fear to her that maybe, just maybe, I was queer. I couldn’t remember ever being attracted to a man before, though, and I had a stack of Playboy magazine’s next to my bed. That had to mean something. “It’s okay if you’re gay,” she said, stroking my head, “although I don’t think you are.” She put a soft hand on my lap. Afterwards, I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe I was gay. Steve had no gay behaviors, no lisp. He was built like a running back and he liked the same music as me. And I liked him—he made me laugh, made me feel welcome in the shit-hole fast food pizza place where I worked.
I ran to the toilet, barreling through doors, and crouched on the floor to empty my guts into the toilet bowl. “I want to go to my mom’s,” I said, tears streaming down my cheeks. The world was asunder.
My mother drove me to Galion, where she lived with her boyfriend, and I spent a day there contemplating what being a gay man might be. Everything would be different, my relationships, my family, and the way I socialized, and, most importantly, sex would change. Where I grew up, kids were fed hate and ignorance about gay people. We weren’t taught that there are many kinds of relationships. Instead, people who were frightened, who wore their racism, homophobia, and sexism as badges of honor, told us the world was black and white.
While I tried to reject this worldview, it could be difficult, especially the homophobia aspect. Bewildered, I didn’t understand that a person could have relationships with gay men without having gay sex. I came to the realization that in order to be truly gay, one must want to have gay sex, which I didn’t.
On the bookcase in the living room of my in-laws house, thousands of miles from the Franklin County Courthouse, there is a small photo of me and my wife standing across the street from the courthouse, a small bouquet of flowers in her hand and an expectant smile on her red, flushed face. I’m standing next to her with a freshly pressed powder-blue shirt with a crooked grin that seems to say, “This time I will get it right.” We married just four years and two days after the end of my previous marriage in the same courthouse where both that marriage and the subsequent divorce took place.
The courthouse is huge in Franklin County, three towering buildings that mete out justice between marble and drop ceilings. They are a trifecta of fear, loathing, and, in some rare cases, joy, with the Justice of the Peace sandwiched between Adult Probation and the Public Defender’s office. Dizzyingly busy at times, they are filled with pleated skirts, blue suits, leather-bound briefcases, and lawyers carrying piles of documents in the hope that the sheer magnitude of paperwork will turn a judge or jury in their favor. By contrast the other inhabitants of the court house, are the poor and economically malnourished, many of the men brandishing neck tattoos, and women pulling along toddlers, at times picking up the child by the arm, the frustration of the day being put into action. Parking is a chore, with few parking meters available. If you’re unfamiliar with how the courthouse works, then understanding how long a marriage or divorce takes is a puzzle.
Today, one of the responsibilities of my job is to appear in court with mentally ill clients, who approach the courthouse with a very real sense of trepidation or fear, not knowing if they will be leaving the courthouse in a bus with corrugated fencing over the windows via the basement entrance. The fear I once had of the courthouse is a far cry from the fear of my clients.
Me and Robin, my soon-to-be-ex wife drove to the courthouse in the same car, a white Metro that I had bought with money borrowed from Dan Dow (a sum that he would largely forgive a few years later). I was going to give the car to her as part of the divorce—that and temporary custody of Istvan, my beagle-collie mix who liked to eat records and shit on the floor. I would have given anything to rid myself of the pangs of guilt caused by yet another failed relationship.
We drove to the courthouse together to untie the knot that we had just months prior banded together, hoping that this dreadful day would never come. We were nervous and somehow on this particular morning this energy somehow brought us together when we were publically tearing ourselves apart. I had arranged for our mutual acquaintance Mark Fisher to handle the dissolution. Mark is known as the “rock and roll lawyer” in Columbus circles. He helped organize the annual Community Festival, a somewhat self-congratulatory endeavor of the bohemian, left-minded wing of Franklin County that celebrates local music, liberal ideals, and lots of alcohol. I have never cared for the festival, although it tends to be the one gathering that brings the Columbus music and arts scenes together for one mud-filled and alcohol-soaked weekend a year. Mark did the dissolution for the low sum of $500, and, since we owned very little, it was easy. We appeared in the courtroom, signed some paperwork, and our marriage was dissolved.
An emptiness came with our failure, a type of vacancy that blended the present moment with the past, muddled together to wipe out any sense of body or emotion. For a moment, when the realization hit, I couldn’t feel the outside, as if I were a flag, shifting with the wind, the skin like bare thread bouncing but not feeling anything expect the lack of feeling. Stepping to the curb, Robin and I looked at one another, nervous smiles across our faces. We had a permanent public scar on our history; the brunt of our deteriorated relationship would be in the newspaper tomorrow. We looked at one another, trying to figure out the next step. On the car ride back to her apartment we stopped for a drink, and then another drink, before finally succumbing to one another. We got a twelve-pack and drove to her house, with nervous energy bouncing off of one another like invisible emotional darts. Did we feel sadness, anger, relief, or shame?
Heading to her room, we undressed to engage in the one activity that lifted all oppressive emotions for at least a moment. Afterwards, she laid her head on my chest. Feeling as if I were standing too close to a campfire, my eyebrows singeing, I bolted upright. “I gotta go, now,” I stammered.
Scowling, she replied, “That’s just like you, you are such a fucking asshole. God, I hate your fucking guts. You’ve RUINED my fucking life!” I listened to her screaming while I wrestled a pair of jeans on in the other room. My little dog Istvan stared up at me, wondering where I was going.
Lurching home, I picked up a 12-pack of Milwaukee’s Best Light and, with drama in every step, plodded up Ted Hattemer’s wooden porch steps. The dazzling sun was in stark contrast to the grayness that filled me. Plopping down in front of the stereo, I listened to “Dear You” by Jawbreaker, a favorite of both me and Jerry Wick. And looked back at the drama I had set up for myself as if it was something straight out of a John Hughes movie. In reality, everything about me that week was a wreck. That night, after a quick drunken nap, I decided to go out. I went to Larry’s and quickly started a conversation with a dark-haired woman who had tattoos stretching up one arm and down the other. A few hours later I found myself in her bed. After sloppy and guilt ridden sex, I laid on my back, trying to see if the ceiling in her room really had a tapestry pinned to it. I wanted an inner shower.
The next day, sauntering in to work with a large black Buckeye Donuts coffee to purge my sweaty hangover, my colleagues were kind enough not to mention the day before. The drinking started early again that day, as it would for the majority of the next year. It usually began at five p.m., but sometimes it started earlier, at around three. A quick double shot of vodka and lime juice at Larry’s followed by a six pack of Black Label to get me through the last few hours of Used Kids and I was ready to stumble into the coming night.
That night I went to Staches and ended up at The Blue Danube, where I ran into Jerry and two women drinking at the bar. Jerry cracked to the women that I just gotten a divorce, which somehow impressed them. Either they were amazed that someone would marry a schlep like me or that I had lived long enough to be married and divorced. Nobody in our scene actually married. We eventually ended up downtown, the four of us, dancing at the Garage, better known to wizened souls as the Gay-Rage. Our bodies twisted and we flicked our sweat onto all the gay men hurtling themselves to the heavy techno beats of the time. Feeling lost, I went home with one of the two women. I urgently needed to be held, smelled, and felled. Waking up the next morning, in another strange house, was unnerving. She was gone, and she had left a note on her dinner table that directed me to the still-warm coffee and gave me her phone number and name. Walking home, I was overcome with an even heavier sense of loss than I’d had the day before.
Rinse and repeat. The next night I found myself at Dow’s on High and then at Dick’s Den, two havens for drunken outsiders who were fond of classic country music and jazz. I ran into Eric Davidson’s girlfriend, Heather, and a female bartender from Bernie’s named Jen. Jen and I had been flirting for several years, trading gazes across the bar that implied we both wanted more than drinks. She was short, with solid blonde hair that wasn’t dyed, and she had a quick wit that works well when serving drinks to the cynical crowd. At Dick’s Den, under the influence of a mixture of Maker’s Mark and Pabst Blue Ribbon, she said “Good” when I told her I had gotten divorced three days ago. Later, on groggy, loose legs, I asked her if she wanted to go back to my house to listen to records. This was the indie version of asking a woman if she wanted to have sex. Although on this night, as the effects of the PBR and Maker’s Mark went from pleasing to drudging up more guilt, listening to records was actually what I wanted to do.
The attic of Ted’s house had been reconstructed to handle me post divorce. I had asked Ted if I could move in with him some months earlier, and he had converted the attic into a two room area with a half bath for me. It was lined with records, CDs, books, and a few barely alive plants. The floor was littered with t-shirts and most of the free areas on shelves and the dresser were filled with empty beer bottles stuffed with cigarette butts.
I had my grandmother and grandfather’s huge bed, which was nearly an acre across in order to hold my grandmother’s enormous girth and the dying body of my grandfather. The bed filled the room, with sheets twisted across it as if they had been lifted by a tornado and deposited at the other end. The dog hair was thick on both the bed and the carpet beside the bed, but I kept it as clean as I could. I had slept in enough strangers’ beds to be aware of how it feels to lay back naked on a filthy mattress. I explained all of this to Jen in a drunken, laughing dialect that only alcohol can create. “It’s clean,” I said as I pointed to the bed, “except for all that dog hair. I mean, the dogs are also clean. I bathe them, you know? Those beer bottles are new. Smell them. They don’t smell like Bernie’s or anything. I drank them in the past few days—same with the clothes. I mean, I didn’t drink the clothes…I wore them, but just the past few days…I’m not dirty.” At this point, I started to move my hips ever so slightly to the rapturous sounds of Les Thugs. She smiled. “I mean,” I said, casting a mischievous smile her way, “I’m dirty but not like dirt dirty.” I thought that this sounded wiser than “I’m horny.” I leaned in to her and we kissed, but suddenly I wasn’t feeling so dirty any longer, just sad.
I stopped kissing Jen and sat on the edge of the bed until “I Love You So” faded into the next song, which wasn’t nearly as epic. Putting on the first Bee Gees’ record, I left to take a piss. When I came back, talking to myself about the greatness of the Bee Gees, there she stood, completely naked but for her earrings. Shit, I thought, I can’t do this—three nights in a row with different women. I had plenty of hang-ups about sex, even without considering the divorce I had gotten a few days ago. I hugged her and then perched myself back on the corner of the bed. She kissed my neck, placing a hand on my chest. I said, “I can’t do this now.”
“Why? You know we didn’t come to your house to listen to records.”
I looked down, not knowing what to say; even though this scene was something out of a fifteen year old’s fantasy. “Well, I just got my divorce,” I stumbled over words as she pulled my shirt up. I was listless both inside and out.
“Yeah….” She purred. I waited a few moments, taking some breaths, thinking as the moments ticked by. What do I say? I thought, as my mood was quickly changing. “Ummm, I got my divorce because I’m gay,” I stammered.
She waited, thinking, and then turned my head. Before kissing me fully on the lips she said, “you ARE NOT gay.” And we completed the task.