James Joseph Brown

When my parents tell me we are going to Cape Cod for vacation the summer right after my thirteenth birthday I tell them flatly I want to stay home.  I’ve outgrown it, I reason with them.  I’m bright, responsible, and not prone to getting mixed up with the wrong crowd.  My idea of a party is having a few friends over for a Dungeons & Dragons marathon.  They agree, on all counts.  But they still don’t think I’m old enough to stay home by myself while they leave for our annual trip to the Cape.  I try to convince them.  They don’t budge.  An epic battle ensues.  In the aftermath, sullen and defeated, I am banished to my room.

Not knowing what else to do, I slouch down in front of my desk and chop angry hatch marks onto my sketch pad.  I use my fingers to smudge the lines, shade and contour them until a picture like something in the comic books I love to read begins to emerge.  One of the figures I’ve drawn is a close facsimile of me, sitting in a corner, hair in his face, arms crossed.  It’s a pose suitable for any brooding comic book hero, stuck in a hopeless place, having to finally admit defeat.  It could be Daredevil slumped in the corner of a rainy roof after losing a battle he needed to win, or Doctor Strange caught in a rare moment of exhaustion, his spells depleted, weighted down from the responsibility of protecting the world from mystical threats.  I’ve also created a villain and drawn it above my avatar, a massive, larger-than-life devil which fills the sky, casting ominous shadows across the clouds.  I’ve drawn the floor in the shape of a map of Massachusetts, with Cape Cod protruding off one end, a sickly, misshapen finger, beckoning the hapless hero to his doom.  In an act of defiance, I tape the sketch to the outside of my bedroom door and quickly retreat back inside.

Going away with my parents, having to spend two weeks alone with them, will be torture.  They’ve long since given up asking me what’s wrong when I come home from school, silent and withdrawn, but still, their worried glances, their presence outside my always closed bedroom door, feels intrusive and suffocating.

I’ve never told them about the tough kids who’ve started closing in on me when I’m trying to leave school.  Instead, when I feel threatened, I concentrate on manifesting a latent superpower.  I need something to get me out of danger; invisibility so they can’t see me, the ability to shrink, so I can disappear from sight, super speed, so I can zip away in an instant.

When I close my eyes at night, before I go to sleep, I will my body to get so light it becomes insubstantial and then I rise through the ceiling.  In those moments alone in the dark I lift myself up, soar above rooftops, escape the subtly increasing weight and mass of my developing body and leave it behind in my bed.  The streets unfold below me.  I glide above them, free and unburdened by the confines and rigidity of classes and schedules and mandatory family vacations, just out of reach of the people below.

*  *  * 

My parents and I pack our gear, stow it in the car, and set off for the drive to the Cape.  I get motion sickness in the back seat on the way there and throw up in the bucket I use every year to make sandcastles.  It’s fine, my mother says.  He’s too old to make sandcastles now anyway.  I’m prone to throwing up and sweating too much.  Anxiety makes my gums bleed and is causing me to develop nervous tics.  One thing being sickly does is gives me an excuse to opt out of family activities.

Once we arrive at The Beacon Inn, I slip away and develop my own, relatively quiet, regime.  In the mornings, I wander through the wood-shingled cottages up to the main clubhouse with a stack of comics and a few paperbacks.  I find a spot on the wraparound deck overlooking the ocean with a small group of elderly vacationers who spend most of the summer at the resort.  They smile at me and don’t bother me with too many questions.  Sometimes they invite me to play shuffleboard.  If I say yes, they are happy to have me aboard.  If I say no, thank you, I am in the middle of a good book, they simply shrug and say it’s for the best, it’s just about time for a nap anyway.

We spend hours together, the sound of seagulls lulling us into a companionable reverie, each lost in our own worlds.  I devour one issue after another of my favorite comic, The New Defenders, which is about a quirky team of superheroes who appeal to me because they tend to march to the beat of their own drummer.  Three of the main characters are also X-Men.  They are from the early days of comics and have run-of-the-mill powers and backstories.  Angel has wings and is rich.  Iceman generates ice and is a wise-ass.  Beast is acrobatic and super intelligent.  The other characters are far more interesting.  They are a grab bag of oddballs and borderline personalities.  They have darker backstories, edgier interpersonal conflicts, more contemporary storylines.  Gargoyle is an elderly man who has made a pact with a demon in order to save his hometown from economic ruin.  As a result he ends up trapped in the body of a mystical gargoyle who can fly and manipulate bio-mystical energy.  Valkyrie is the modern incarnation of the handmaiden of the Norse god Odin.  She is the all-around bad ass of the team, charging into battle astride her winged horse Aragorn while wielding her powerful sword, Dragonfang.  Cloud is a celestial entity who begins her run in the series believing she is a human woman who can transform herself into a living cloud, complete with rain and thunderbolts.  She falls in love with her female teammate Moondragon and eventually reforms her body as a human man, leading to all kinds of complications that almost make my adolescent mind explode.  Then there is Moondragon herself, the most intriguing of them all.  Moondragon is a bisexual telepathic master martial artist sent away from Earth to be raised by a colony of monks on Titan.  She is the obvious wildcard of the group, the snake in the grass who could turn on the team and strike at any moment.  Every team has one.

Moondragon, her bisexuality, and her relationship with Cloud especially, leave me with all kinds of questions, and no one to ask.  My thoughts are so loud I’m sure one of the elderly vacationers sitting with me on the deck overlooking the Atlantic can hear them.  I do what Moondragon often does in the New Defenders.  I visualize shields in the shape of a giant Dragon surrounding me, enveloping me in a mystical glow.  They are strong and unyielding.  I am a keeper of secrets.  No one will know anything I don’t want them to know, until I am ready, which will be never.

Back in our small town I’ve heard there’s another boy like me.  He was caught with an older boy doing things I’ve never done, only thought about.  It’s a small town.  Overnight everyone knew.    He was run out of town, literally.  He only comes back to visit once a year, and even then he can’t leave the house.  My classmates talk about him behind his back as if he’s the devil, and worse than that, the adults in town gossip about him and say he ought to know better than to come back to town and stir up trouble.  They never say why.  For them it’s too awful to name.

I caught a glance of him once as I was leaving my piano teacher’s house, which is across the street from his family’s hilltop Victorian.  He made eye contact with me before he retreated behind a curtain.  My blood went cold.  He knows, I thought.  I don’t know how, but he knows.  One second he was there, a pair of eyes behind a bay window at the top of a grassy hill, like a sad prince from fairy tale, cloistered away after being cursed by an evil wizard, the next he was gone, a rustling of curtains left behind, insubstantial as a breeze.  He was like the ghost of what I might become if anyone ever finds out.

*  *  *

I am able to avoid my parents for most of the trip.  But sometimes they want to do things together, which is understandable since it’s a family vacation.  Because this is the one time of year they spring for a fancy trip, every evening, we dress for dinner at the clubhouse.  It’s a formal affair, with lots of polished wood and white tablecloths and fresh-faced waiters leaning over so low they are almost bowing.  I have to wear a jacket and tie, all the men do, even the young ones like me who are barely men yet, even in the humid late summer.  I grouse, rub at the stiff collar, the itchy socks riding too high on my short legs, but still someday, I will look back fondly at the dignified, Old World air of those dinners, the elegant look of the photos, the charming, anachronistic flair of the whole affair.  In every photo I am leaning as far away from my parents as I can, my head lowered, as if I’m afraid they will be able to read my thoughts if they get too close to my brain.

One evening we drive several towns over to see Tony Danza in a surprisingly good production at a nearby playhouse.  Another day we go on a whale watching tour on a boat which makes me seasick.  The next day we take a trip to Provincetown.  Even in the eighties Provincetown is a gay mecca.  I fake a horrific illness, but there is no getting out of this one.  Sullen and defeated once again, I’m marched unceremoniously into the backseat of the car and driven along the narrow roads that curve along the crooked arm of Cape Cod all the way to the very tip of the peninsula.

It is a gorgeous day.  Sea breezes cool the pristine, sun-dappled cottages along the waterfront.  Ferries glide effortlessly into the bay, bringing in small groups of tourists with windbreakers tied around their waists and sunglasses pushed up on their heads.  For a while I am feeling better.  The sea salty air feels good in my lungs.  The sky, clear and blue seems to reach a place deep inside me and soothe it.  I want to tie this moment up into a neat little bow and place it on the shelf like a souvenir of a perfect day with the family, like a ship in a bottle, or a sprinkle of starfishes glued to a net.  But before long I am feeling worse than ever.  I am nearly bent over with a stomach ache.  My vision is blurry.  And it’s because of all the gays.

They are so beautiful it is making me sick.  Everywhere I turn there are gorgeous men.  Men like I have never seen before.  Muscular and walking tall and straight-backed and proud.  And I can’t look at them.  I can’t let my parents, who are bookending me the entire day, see me sneak a single glance at one of these glorious adult men for even a second.  One stray glance, one line of sight followed in the wrong direction, and the course of my life changes forever.  I become something different.  I become the sad boy in the house on the hill, hidden behind curtains, an object of scorn, a pariah whose only option is exile.

As we get ready to leave I stop in my tracks.  I see two men holding hands, right there in the middle of the street.  I have never, ever seen anything like it.  I am mesmerized.  My dad is trying to get my attention but I have gone zombie, eyes fixed, frozen like a medusa victim.  One of the guys looks exactly like Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club.  Tank top, buff, serious face.  Every part of me fills with something I didn’t know was there before.  My dad leads me away.  I think he assumes I am freaked out by the hand holding.  Maybe not.  Maybe he knows I was gawking, swallowing lumps in my throat, face flushed, pulse racing.

*  *  *

That night, as usual, I struggle to fall asleep.  I think about Emilio.  He is just across the bay, at the tip of the peninsula, at the very end of the Cape.  So close I can almost will myself to be there with him, float myself above my body, glide across the waves back to Provincetown.  I can ghost my way to him and materialize by his side.  What abilities would I need to get close to him?  What if I could turn myself into mist and float through the wall like Cloud?  Then I could sneak out in the middle of the night.  If I had wings like Angel or Gargoyle I could fly across the water.  Or turn the bay into ice like Iceman and skate across it until I found him.  And then what?  I’m thirteen, he’s an adult.  But I don’t care.  I just want to touch him.  What if I could make myself invisible with mind-bending abilities like Moondragon’s, make him believe he can’t see me, so that I could watch him undress and he would never know?  Or watch him and his boyfriend kissing?  Or just use Moondragon’s telepathy, her power of suggestion to make him do whatever I want him to do.

It will take a long time before I realize that you don’t need superpowers to get close to someone.  You don’t need to sneak in and force them to be with you the same way a superhero sneaks into a secret fortress and steals top secret blueprints from a villain in order to defeat them.  I am years away from knowing this, or anything else about love and life for that matter, other than the fear and shame that are so much a part of my daily life they feel deserved.  I can’t know that this impossible burden society has loaded onto my fragile shoulders won’t always be there.  At thirteen it’s inconceivable that life will ever get better.  But it will, and it does.  Not for a long time, but it does.

On the drive home from the Cape it’s obvious something has changed.  My father knows, but he won’t say it.  The worst has happened.  He’s figured out what I was staring at, but he’s already talked himself out of it.  We won’t talk about it.  I’ll keep my head in my books, my bedroom door closed.  I’ll use my powers to place a telepathic shield around my thoughts, as big and strong as a dragon.  No one can penetrate it.  No one will know what I’m feeling.  My secrets will be safe for now.

James Joseph Brown’s fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Crate, Desert Companion, Santa Fe Literary Review, Hot Metal Bridge, Connotation Press, Red Rock Review, Canyon Voices, The Whistling Fire, and other publications.
He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  His work in Desert Companion won the Maggie Award for Best Essay of 2015.
A former English instructor and Peace Corps volunteer who has lived and worked in Russia, Spain, Korea, Thailand, and Lithuania, he is currently serving as Nonfiction Editor-at-Large for Helen:  A Literary Magazine, and working as a casino dealer on the Las Vegas Strip.  Visit him at www.jamesjosephbrown.com

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