Unknown to him, Denny feels love from another person, for the first time
Driving north on I-55, late summer trees already turning yellow, the dry summer of 1976 took its toll. It was hot.
Driving with windows down, wind buffeted them inside the car. Naomi propped her feet on the dashboard, twirling a strand of hair, singing with the radio.
They passed under a sign announcing Interstate 44 in three miles.
“Get off at Highway 40. They live in Creve Coeur,” Naomi told him. “We’ll pass the Arch, the Gateway to the West,” she smiled.
They left Mississippi early that day in the Toyota. Denny wanted to arrive while it was still daylight. Weeks earlier, while driving around Tupelo she told him she was in love.
“You know I’m not attracted to women,” he responded.
“But I love you,” she said, and started to cry.
Denny didn’t know she had performed this same scene with another feminine young man in Saltillo.
“I care about you, but, you know I can’t be in love with you,” he tried again.
She put both hands over her face and sobbed.
Too inexperienced to know what she was doing or how to respond, he looked into the afternoon sunlight with confusion.
She wasn’t aware either. She was attracted to pretty, feminine men, but she felt, at a deep level, at a level hidden from her, that she had a magical gift that would turn gay men straight.
Unconsciously, she believed she could make Denny heterosexual.
Neither of them was aware of motivations. They were at the age when, spit out from adolescence, they found themselves in a strange, alien landscape of adulthood.
Eager to be grown up, she wanted to marry, to compete with her older brother and sister who were childless. She wanted to live the life of a housewife, going out with friends while her husband worked. She convinced herself she was in love. However, love had little to do with it.
For his part, Denny, would take advantage of Naomi to get away from his father, to leave Tupelo, to leave the redneck town where so many were miserable, poor, and uneducated.
He was unaware of motivations, but took the first opportunity to leave.
At the age of 19, he didn’t realize his whole life had been organized around his father’s rages. He was unaware of his own responses, unaware of processes and ways of seeing the world that helped him survive as a child, but would be problematic as an adult. He didn’t see that he looked for triggers around him, attentive to anything that might provoke anger.
Finding no logical triggers for his father’s violence, he found illogical ones. It was the shirt he wore or the song playing on the radio. Maybe it was the way the sunlight came through a window. Triggers were everywhere. He was vigilant.
He was alive because of the slenderest of chances. His father told him he would kill him. He told him he would not live to adulthood. His Daddy screamed his existence was an insult to him.
Denny didn’t know his life had been organized around abusive events:
- Hurricane Camille struck Gulf Port just before his father made him sit at the road naked, to humiliate him.
- Daddy beat him with a tree limb when his mother bought him bell bottom pants in 1973.
- A curved scar on his right arm was from a beating with a water hose.
- A blunt, jagged, scar on his thigh was from being thrown into the corner of a brick wall.
He couldn’t see them, but the emotional scars were worse. Forming an impenetrable wall in front of him, they blocked his progress. The wall protected him as a child. He couldn’t see that now, away from the monster, the wall would block his progress.
He built the wall himself.
Distance from others made him feel protected. He calculated emotions and reactions of those around him from a safe distance.
The distance allowed him retreat from danger, but also made him feel alone, isolated, unloved.
He didn’t know it would be decades before he would trust that someone could love him.
He didn’t know that soon, however, the wall would crack at the center, opening a small gap, a gap that would eventually widen into a gateway.
He didn’t know the first real love he experienced would be so strong, the wall would fracture, breaking right down the center.
He didn’t know that he would peer, painfully, through the rupture, into his future, the future he had been born to, the future Batresh was here to protect.
He couldn’t know that months later, in January, he would lie in the arms of a man who would love him.
It was during a snow storm, a midwestern winter storm that the crack in the wall first appeared.
Denny lay in Bob’s arms under two homemade quilts. Outside, the wind howled around corners. Denny lay with his head on Bob’s chest.
“I was 16,” Denny responded to Bob’s question. “Daddy tried to make me read a book called, 69 Gay Street.” He focused on the light fixture on the ceiling of the darkened bedroom.
“Did you read it?” Bob asked.
“No,” Denny whispered. “I thought he was trying to get me to admit I was gay.” He closed his eyes, remembering the cover of the novel his Dad pushed into his face that summer afternoon. “He would’a killed me if I read that book.
“He told me I was stuck up, that I didn’t want to read it because I thought I was better than Carl-David, the man who gave it to him.”
They were both silent. Denny continued, “While I was eating supper, he punched me on the side of my face. The chair fell over and I was on the floor, black-eyed peas all over me, all over everything.” Bob kissed him again. “He pulled me outside, dragging me on the ground, then, threw me against the apple tree.” Bob caressed the young man’s arm. “He pulled me to the back yard and started kicking me.”
“What did you do?” Bob asked.
“I couldn’t do anything,” Denny responded. “He told me that this wasn’t my home, he told me to leave, told me he didn’t want to see me again.”
Bob reached around him with both arms, kissing his face, his neck, and his eyes. “Nobody will ever treat you like that again,” he whispered. “Nobody,” he continued, kissing him, and whispering. “I won’t let them.”
That January night in Hazelwood, Missouri, just north of St. Louis, was Bob and Denny’s first date. Denny arrived from the little apartment where he lived with Naomi. It was Denny’s first date with anyone. When he arrived, Bob’s apartment was steamy from cooking. The door was unlocked. Bob shouted for him to come on in. Denny was sitting at the dining room table when Bob walked out of the bedroom wearing a pressed Brooks Brothers shirt.
Mozart played from the stereo. Denny looked around at modern furniture, paintings on the wall, shelves of books. This was the world as it should be. He yearned to learn about the world outside of Mississippi. In movies, he saw parents loving their children. On TV, he saw people being civil. It was that world, the world portrayed in movies and TV he wanted to escape to. It was there he would find healing. It was the world Bob inhabited.
A decorative tile of St. George and the Dragon, from a trip Bob made to museums in Washington D.C, hung on the wall opposite him.
He did not understand its meaning to his young life.
He did not understand that Bob was St. George, that Bob would slay that dragon, the dragon of self-hatred, the dragon of fear, the dragon of failure.
“Where did you run away to?” Bob asked, kissing Denny on the forehead.
His voice growing quieter, he responded, “It was night time, and I was scared he would come lookin’ for me, so I went through the woods.”
“You ran away through the woods at night?”
“Yeah,” Denny answered. “I could see the shapes of bushes, and trees. I fell a few times, but I ended up on another blacktop road.”
“What did you do?”
“I walked to Saltillo,” Denny responded.
“Was that a long walk?”
“I don’t know, a few hours,” Denny said.
“I walked to the back of a Baptist church, close to the woods, and slept there. I woke up with ants crawling on me.”
“Where did you go then?” Bob asked, caressing Denny’s forehead.
“One of Daddy’s friends knew where I was.” Denny turned and looked into Bob’s face. “I don’t know how Jerry knew, he wouldn’t tell me. But, he drove me to my Mamaw’s house, and she kept me for a month.”
“How did he know?” Bob asked himself, looking at the ceiling.
Earlier, after a dinner of coq au vin, an exotic dish for Denny, he and Bob cuddled listening to music. Denny was full of questions. Bob played a D'oyly Carte recording of HMS Pinafore, explaining the witticisms, the history of the time. Denny absorbed information hungrily. Bob told him about Oscar Wilde, played Mozart’s symphonies, and read Gabriel Garcia Marquez to him, all the while kissing and holding him.
“When did you come to St. Louis?” Bob asked.
“I moved here with Naomi, back in August,” he looked down at the floor with embarrassment. “We were going to get married.”
Bob couldn’t refrain from chuckling. “Why did you want to marry her?”
“She told me she was in love with me, and when I reminded her I was not attracted to women, she cried.”
“So, you thought you had to marry her?” Bob asked smiling.
“I guess so,” Denny responded, looking at the steel and glass coffee table in front of them. He rested his head on Bob’s shoulder.
“She’s Jewish?” Bob asked.
Denny nodded. “I went with her to her temple once.”
“Shaare Emeth, in University City.”
“Oh,” Bob nodded, “I grew up near there, on Delmar.”
“It was before the presidential election.” Denny looked at Bob smiling. “It was so funny.”
Bob slid his fingers between Denny’s.
“The Rabbi talked about the election. He told the congregation the choices were so bad, between a Republican and a Baptist.” Bob nodded, caressing Denny’s hair, “He told his congregation not to vote.”
Bob raised his eyebrows.
“The congregation started yelling curse words. They were so mad!”
“Had you ever seen anything like that?” Bob asked.
“No, back in Mississippi, nobody would EVER cuss at their preacher during a service.”
He sat upright on the sofa. Bob turned his body around, sitting up as well.
“I guess you knew you were not in Mississippi anymore,” Bob laughed.
“Thank God!” Denny responded. “I have finally come to civilization.” He looked at Bob.
“Want another glass of wine?” Bob asked him.
“I could never live in Mississippi again,” Denny offered.
“You know, St. Louis is called the Gateway to the West,” Bob said.
Denny nodded again.
“It looks like for you, St. Louis is a kind of Gateway.” Bob stood, and walked to the kitchen to refill their glasses. “You know, Shaare Emeth means Gateway to Truth in Hebrew.”
He returned to Denny holding out the glass of wine. “Let’s toast to your Gateway,” he continued, sitting down beside the young man.
“Here’s to your Gateway,” he said moving his face closer, “the Gateway to your future.”