Go Your Own Way
I played for the st. gerard’s first-grade boys’ soccer team because participation was compulsory, sports were a thing a boy was expected to take to, and I liked being where the boys were besides. They’d put me at goalie, which was a smart tactical move because I wasn’t very good at the running or the kicking or the remembering which way to go when I had the ball. I wasn’t into it. All the bewildering action was happening a world away in midfield, and I’d already done the thing where I tangled myself up in the net and pretended I was a Spider-Man villain; my work on the field felt done. And there was an audience right there: a bleacher full of parents and siblings, some from St. G’s, some from the opposing parish, Mary Queen of Peace--a crowd, I imagined, as starved for entertainment as I was. I knew where I was needed.
I walked over to the bleachers and shook some hands. “Good to see you, Mr. and Mrs. Gunn. Is that a new blouse, Mrs. Edwards? Lovely.” I could hear Coach O’Connor calling me back to my post, but I had put myself where I knew I could do the most good. “Can that be Angela, Mrs. DiNunzio? No. She’s growing up too fast.” My parents tried to get my attention and point me toward the field. “Let’s do a cheer,” I told my public. “How about ‘This Team Is Red Hot’--Do we all know that one? I’ll start.” The parents from Mary Queen of Peace got louder and louder, until they broke out into full applause and stood--which felt premature, given that I hadn’t even gotten into my impressions yet--but the ovation was not for me. I turned around just in time to see that one of their kids had sent the ball right into my untended goal. I clapped and whooped along with them. Scoring is good no matter who does it, I figured. It’s why we’re here in the first place. A few of the parents began to laugh, and I was too young to know it was at me. I just knew I was getting a reaction, and a reaction felt good. I’d never felt like I had much to offer out on the field, but this, this, was something I could do.
Coach O’Connor was a patient man, but he had his limits. “Hey, Holmes?” he called out to me, “Isn’t there somewhere you should be?”
Of course there was. I turned back to the bleachers: “Is anybody celebrating an anniversary?”
My family’s game was well in progress by the time I made it to the field--my parents had my brothers, Dan and Steve, a year and a half apart, and then exactly eight years later, me--so entertaining from the sidelines has always been my default position. Those who can neither do nor teach have a tendency to observe and make jokes.
Like any good St. Louis family, my family loves sports. They aren’t obsessed--they don’t wear jerseys or paint their torsos or perform strange rituals beyond some enthusiastic marching in place to the Notre Dame fight song--but they’re into it. We had season tickets to the football Cardinals in the years before the owner moved them to wherever they are now--boy, was that the talk of the town that I sort of half listened to--and while I loved going along, I never paid a bit of attention to the game. Who could, when there was so much else going on? When you could analyze the cheerleaders and try to determine which was the one the rest of them didn’t like? When the guy three rows ahead of you with the huge pink face got drunker and drunker on the ice-cold beers the vendor kept selling him, and his wife silently planned her escape? When you were scanning the audience for someone else who was looking at the world the same way you were, who also called the crowd at a football game an “audience”? Life was unfolding all around--who cared which team got the most points?
My family is also Catholic, which meant that we showed up at 11:00 Mass every Sunday, with breakfast at the IHOP after. Catholicism is supposed to contain and explain all the mysteries of an infinite universe, but you’re not supposed to ask questions. You’re supposed to sing along with the hymns, but not too loudly. You’re supposed to sit--and stand, and kneel, and genuflect--quietly in church, and if that’s hard for you to do, you’re supposed to give it as an offering to Our Lord Jesus Christ. (Affer it up t’Are Lard, Mom would whisper to us; you’re evidently also supposed to know what that means.) You’re expected to worship an invisible, unknowable being who made the whole world in six days and then rested for one, who sent his only son to die on a cross because of what you did or might someday do or might someday think about doing, all so that someday you can go live on a cloud with them and all your dead relatives and favorite celebrities for an infinite number of forevers. But you’re not supposed to be weird about it. When your main objective is to be a good kid, Catholicism makes everything extremely complicated.
Growing up, my brothers stood as two ball-playing, Catholic-etiquette-understanding examples of what boys were supposed to be. They were effortlessly athletic and personable, smart and charismatic. They were cool. Dan was in a Catholic high school in Midtown St. Louis that had a military option, which he chose voluntarily, in classic oldest-child fashion. Steve went to a different one in the suburbs with a good football program. Dan could do all kinds of drills with his rifle; he could tap me on the shoulders with the Wiffle-ball bat from the garage and make me a knight like he saw in Camelot. Steve could do all the Muppets’ voices and throw a tennis ball so high in the air it became a tiny speck and then I couldn’t even see it anymore. And I begged them to do it all again and again. It was the best show in town.
Where they could wrestle or race each other and be more or less evenly matched, either one of them could demolish me so easily there was no point in my even trying. When they tossed a baseball at each other, it would make that satisfying, forceful little pop when it would hit the other’s glove; my throws would make a sad little arc ending halfway to my intended target, an average of thirty degrees to the left. They knew how to talk to and win over kids their age; I gave up on my peers when I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to discuss Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
They were also skilled at the art of being good older brothers. It’s Steve who taught me how to read, when he was ten and I was two. We watched Sesame Street together, and after each episode he’d make flash cards to reinforce the lessons of the day. Because it meant more time together, I’d go over them again and again until I was reading whole sentences. I became a local celebrity: The Kid Who Can Read. I’d read the slogan of the local dry cleaner out loud--“If we can’t clean it, it can’t be cleaned”--and follow along with Father Shea from the missalette during Mass. If I didn’t understand what I was saying, I knew how people were reacting. They noticed me, and I liked being noticed. So I kept doing it, and by the time I was in first grade, I was reading way beyond my grade level. I promise I’m not bragging here; the reason two-year-olds tend not to read is that people tend not to teach them. It’s one of the pillars of Montessori education: you can pretty much teach a kid anything anytime; once he picks up a new skill, he tends to keep doing it until he gets really good.
The problem is that I didn’t go to a Montessori school. Here’s what happens when you show up for first grade at a Catholic parish school reading way beyond your grade level:
When it came time for first grade reading, Miss Streibel would stop everything and call out into the hallway for a massive teacher-in-training named Gary, who would take my hand in his sweaty palm and lead me to the priests’ lounge just off the gymnasium for one-on-one reading time. (I know where your mind is going. Relax.)
First grade reading coincided with sixth grade PE, and if there’s anything sixth-graders for sure do not like, it’s a younger child who can do something they can’t. So when Gary and I entered the gym for the long walk to the priests’ lounge, we would immediately be pelted with whatever the sixth-graders were playing with: dodgeballs, basketballs, or, if they were just running sprints, their actual shoes. The gym teacher would blow her whistle, but it would be in vain; the people had spoken. This went on for weeks.
Like Markie Post in a Lifetime Original Movie, I kept my abuse to myself. I swore Gary to secrecy about the whole thing, and I made eye contact with the gym teacher as if to say: It’s fine, I’m asking for it. But the principal got wind of our problem and came up with a solution only a Catholic educator could love: for the rest of the school year, when Gary and I would enter the gym, the sixth-graders were forced to stop what they were doing--right in the middle of whatever game they were playing--and sit on the floor in silence with their hands folded in their laps as we walked the endless perimeter to the priests’ lounge. I can say this with a certainty that is hard-won: silent glares sting the face worse than dodgeballs.
But then I’d go home, and I’d read something for my parents, and I’d see how proud it made them, and I’d feel right in the world again. Being an early reader alienated me at school, but at home, I was safe.
I was different, and I liked it.
My folks pulled me out of St. Gerard’s after first grade, and during that between-schools summer, I did a lot of thinking about my former classmates. A lot of them I’d be seeing around the neighborhood or at Mass, but there was one whom I wasn’t sure I’d ever see again--and I was surprised by how sad the thought of it made me. His name was Donny, and he was an athletic, confident kid who seemed to just move correctly: chest out, shoulders back, stride confident. He was the first picked at soccer, always. When we were at recess and trying to decide what to play, everyone naturally glanced over at him for guidance. He was a real boy. I wanted to be him, or be near him, or just have him put his arm around me. I didn’t know. I didn’t care.
I just thought: We need to get that kid over here.
And so one June morning, as my family gathered around the kitchen table for bacon and eggs, I asked my mom to call his mom and see if he’d want to come over. “It would be fun to hang around,” I told her. “I want to keep in touch with him.”
“Huh,” Mom said. “I didn’t know you and Donny were such good friends.”
“Oh, we’re not,” I told her. “I just think he’s cute.”
And the pause button was hit on the entire world.
Everyone and everything froze. I had stopped time. If this had happened in a movie trailer, we all would have heard a record scratch and our dog would have covered his eyes.
In that moment, I knew that I had done something that was a special kind of wrong. I hadn’t hurt anyone, I hadn’t lied, I hadn’t sworn or littered or taken Are Lard’s name in vain, I had done something worse. I knew it because I couldn’t even figure out what it was. I knew it because nobody knew how to react. We were all in new territory.
My mother spoke first: “So, when you say that you think Donny is cute”--she wasn’t angry, she was dazed, as if from a punch to the face--“do you mean that you think he’s handsome? Or do you mean something else, like he says cute things and he’s funny and that’s why you like him?”
It was clear which choice would make the world start spinning again.
“The second one. The cute things he says. He’s always saying funny things. He’s so funny.” He wasn’t all that funny.
“Okay,” she said. Relieved. A weight lifted. The air in the room began to circulate again. “Okay, hon. When that’s what you mean, you should say a boy is funny. Boys don’t call other boys cute.” The message was delivered with love, but she looked me right in the eyes to make sure it was delivered. She was just trying to protect me, I can see that now.
Different means unique and distinct, but in St. Louis in the 1970s, if you changed the tone up just a little bit, the word became an insult. People in the Midwest are kind to one another, so they won’t say someone is too loud or too quiet or thick in the head or light in the loafers, they’ll just say: “That kid is different.” It can mean a lot of things, and you don’t want to be any of them.
I remember this moment, because it is when I split into two pieces. It was the moment I realized that there would be a self that I could show the world and a self I’d have to keep hidden. If I wanted to be acceptable, if I wanted to spare myself and my family the shame of being different, I’d have to do some work.
I didn’t think about it again for a very long time, but it left behind an ache.
The drug I numbed myself with was the radio. The song we sang along to the most that summer was Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.”
There’s a reason why gay men have a finely tuned sense of irony.
Here’s a fun fact: before it became another of America’s numerous occasions for large groups of young adults to sleep with and/or spit up on one another, Halloween was a popular holiday among children. In St. Louis in the 1970s, the culture had yet to embrace adult cosplay or the concept that kittens could be made sexy; October 31 was a time for kids to collect fistfuls of fun-size Milky Way bars, thank their elders, and nothing more.