“Howard Roarke laughed. He stood naked at the edge of a cliff…he laughed at the thing which had happened to him that morning, and the things which now lay ahead….”
These are the first lines of the book The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, which my friend Roxanne lent me. “It’ll rock your world,” she said. She was right.
It was late summer, I was nineteen, and crashing on Roxie’s floor. I had left home, my mother’s home, for good, just that morning. For a few weeks until fall term started up, I could stay here. I would spend that time smoking a lot of dope, listening to a shit ton of music, and reading that huge book. In years to come, I would learn that this particular read was practically a manifesto for elitist dicks and conservative blowhards, but on this light-filled August day of my youth, when anything seemed possible, I was captivated with its idealism.
At home, things had gone from bad to worse. My mom and I had fought the entire time since I had returned from freshman year. My mom didn’t like my hair, which was spiked up with some goo called Tenax. She didn’t like that my left ear was pierced (one night in the girls’ dorm after bong hits and grain alcohol shots, Tiffany Winters pulled an ice cube out of her drink, rubbed my ear for two seconds, then took off one of her studs and jammed it into my ear with an audible pop and a gush of blood. “You’re not a virgin any more!” she cackled, and we both laughed until we passed out). I also took to wearing eyeliner, which really pissed my mother off, so to bust balls, I did it all the more. I pointed out to her that David Bowie, Boy George, Billie Idol, Morrissey, Adam Ant, Prince; everybody wore make up now. It was the 80’s, gag me with a spoon already. She rolled her eyes and muttered something about “Nancy boys.” I pretended not to hear her.
My mother could not abide these changes in me, but worst of all, her little boy had come home from the big, dirty city, undeniably queer. I had experimented with sex before, starting in grade school, but it was cautious, furtive, drunken basement fumbling and the occasional blowjob. In Boston, I pursued men with the diligence of a second major, and discovered much to my surprise that I excelled at it. I was on an all-out manhunt, and the world was wide open. There was no going back into the basement, not for this guy.
Back in Rhode Island, I had picked up with my high school buddy Anthony, a fellow my mother disliked intensely. If I was gay, this boy was a mega super 100 watt QUEEN. He was the kind of kid who wore velour short shorts to the prom, which he attended with Louise Jones, the captain of the girls’ field hockey team. She wore a nice tux. Nothing ever happened between Anthony and I, but we had a kindred bond, thinking at the time we were probably the only two gay men in that little pissant burrow just outside of Providence. He’d pick me up in his mother’s tan Caprice and we’d head out to the beach at Scarborough where we’d sit around on the warm sand getting stoned, singing our hearts out to the radio, songs by Patti Labelle and Tina Turner and Laura Brannigan. We laughed a lot about nothing. It was all pretty innocent. We were more like girlfriends than boyfriends.
Anthony actually helped me with what we dubbed the “transformation”. I had always carried a bit of baby fat, but after that first year in college and many midnight munchie runs to Store 24, I had packed on the usual freshman 15, and then some. “Men don’t make passes at guys with fat asses,” Anthony said, sagely. He put me on a strict diet of tuna fish, iced tea, Dexatrim, and More menthol cigarettes, which by the way totally works. Within a month, I had lost 12 pounds. I was tanned and happy, if maybe just a tad jumpy.
One night after Anthony dropped me off, I walked in the back door, sunburnt and whistling a Cyndi Lauper tune. My mother was at the kitchen table, arms folded against her ample bosom. “You missed dinner,” she said.
It was 5:45. The kitchen had been restored to its usual immaculate state of gleaming whiteness.
“I’ll just have tuna,” I said
“Like hell you will. I just cleaned up and I am not going to have my house wreaking of oily fish.” She lit another Winston and blew smoke in my general direction.
I shrugged. I was too buzzed on homegrown and diet pills to argue.
“I don’t like you hanging out with that Anthony person.” She said his name like it was battery acid burning the back of her throat.
Again, I shrugged.
“People say all kinds of things about him”
“What are they saying?”
“You know. He’s a homo.”
There. The word was out. This was the moment we had danced around since I came home. The clock over the stove was ticking, the cat was sleeping in the corner, the smoke from her cigarette curled around between us. Through the haze we stood there eye to eye.
“So am I,” I said. “I’m a homo. And I like it.” I walked out of the room. It felt amazing.
She started slamming every cabinet and drawer, she scrubbed the clean kitchen sink and wiped down the counters again, the whole time cursing and carrying on, all of which I found too funny. When she was done with her white tornado cleaning rampage, she came into my room, without knocking, hands on hips and cigarette in lips like some suburban summer stock Bette Davis. “I want you out of my house!” she said.
Now I knew she was bluffing, I’d seen enough of her dramatics over the years. She’d slam and swoop and holler and scream and say terrible things, and always the next day it would be like nothing ever happened. What she didn’t know was that my bag was already packed, waiting for this showdown. I had written to my buddy Sheila who was back home on Long Island, about how the summer was going, and she had written to our friend Roxanne, who had snagged an apartment off campus on Gainsboro Street, and Roxanne had written her that I had a place to stay if I needed one. I figured I could get a job, do work-study, take out loans or drop out of school if I had to, I’d figure out a way to take care of myself. So the next morning, when Mommy Dearest drove off to work in a huff, I wrote a note, using sable black eyeliner, just to bust her chops one last time. It read: “See you maybe Thanksgiving. I’ll call when I’m settled in." I didn’t even sign it. Anthony took me to the bus. The one way ticket was paid for with cash I swiped from her purse, plus a little extra for smoke, and by noon I was on Roxanne’s doorstep.
So there I was that August day, reading The Fountainhead, stoned on the joint Roxie had left me. I was lying on the bare floor, my head propped up on my old duffel bag, the sun was streaming through the open windows, and I felt a sense of total contentment. I had everything I needed. Across the street, a bunch of guys were out on the roof playing hackie sack and drinking beers. They were blasting a boom box, that damned U2 album that was everywhere that year, but I didn’t mind. I was back, in this city that was full of noise and young people. I loved its dirty streets and the buzz of life. Something new was waiting to happen at any moment, around any corner, someone might appear. Everything was possible.
I was home. And as I drowsed there, with the book on my chest, I was Howard Roarke standing naked at the edge of a cliff, and I laughed myself to sleep.
Norman Belanger is a nurse by profession, and a writer by some character flaw to be worked out in therapy. He's had a few pieces recently accepted, in the July issue of Aids & Understanding magazine, and Blunderbuss online publication, and in an upcoming number of Jonathan, a gay men's lit mag. While a lot of his writing does relate to his experiences in the LGBT community, he is hoping it will also appeal to a wider audience.