"I’m From Damascus, GA"
Story by Brad Willis; Artwork by featured artist Ryan Hartley
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I grew up in a world where boys longed for a new deer rifle for Christmas. The back pockets of blue jeans bore faded circles, evidence of everyone’s favorite contraband, Skoal. It was a world of peanut fields where, in summer months, teenage boys on furlough from football practice drove Ford pickup trucks down rain-rutted country roads toward hundred-year-old oak tree forests where they hauled two-by-fours, sheets of plywood, hammers and nails into the sturdy limbs of trees and there they built deer stands. During winter months, these crude platforms were populated with men, young and old, who sat silent for hours at a stretch, shivering in the cold and waiting for their prey to step haltingly, unsuspectingly into their crosshairs. A boy’s first kill was properly celebrated with drops of blood from the freshly slain buck smeared across his cheeks and forehead by older, more experienced hunters.
It was in this world that I first fell in love.
It was 1982, and I was a Sophomore in high school. His name was Alex, and he was two years younger than I was. I had attended every grade since Kindergarten with his sister, but I had never taken much notice of her little brother. From my youthful perspective, the two years that separated us might just as well have defined the term ‘generation gap’. But that year his mom, who was going through a nasty divorce from his dad and no doubt saw an opportunity to win the children over to her side, decided to treat Alex, his sister and a friend to a trip to Washington, DC. Lucky me, I became the designated friend.
Alex and I shared a hotel room. That’s when I first saw the scar that ran just below the outside curve of his chest. It was about an inch long and slightly raised. The skin over it was darker than the rest of his body. It looked swollen, the scar, and I imagined that if I touched it, if I ran my finger across it, I would find that it was hard.
He said someone had cut him with a hunting knife while skinning a deer. If you had told me at the time that this boy with the golden hair and the defined torso and the muscles that suggested a man rather than a teenager was trying to impress me, I would have looked at you incredulously. The other boys at school occasionally shoved me or called me a faggot. But Alex seemed to want to win my approval. He wasn’t a sissy and he sure didn’t seem like a faggot. But something was different.
On the first night of our stay, I emerged from the shower to find Alex under the covers of the bed I had clearly designated as mine. The only light in the room was that of the television, and it cast shadows in such a way as to make it impossible for me to read his face. Confused, I flopped down on the other bed. We spoke of insignificant things, at once getting to know each other while at the same time holding ourselves at arm’s length from one another but also, perhaps, from ourselves. When it came time to sleep, Alex crawled out of my bed and into his own, while I snuggled into the warmth he had left for me. And so it continued with every night of our stay, each of us warming the bed for the other.
When we got back to school, we would see each other in the hallway and stop to talk. He always had a swarm of girls around him, flirting and giggling. But he seemed to gravitate toward me. I think the other guys thought it was a little weird that this jock, this boy who was surely destined to lead our football team to victory after victory, would hang out with me, a slightly bookish, snobbish guy who cared way more about clothes than any guy should.
I wore his friendship like a coat of armor.
That summer he invited me to stay with his family at their condominium at the beach in Florida. His mother informed me, apologetically, that I would have to share a bed with Alex. I had long since given up any reservations about the fact that he was two years younger than I was. And I was more than content to share his bed.
One day, we were sitting on the beach when Alex reached over and gently, very gently, brushed a few grains of sand off my leg. It was a simple gesture, and it may not seem like much, but I can tell you exactly where the sun was hanging in the sky at that very moment. I held my breath and watched as his hand touched my skin, the moment unfolding as if in slow motion, his body connected to mine however briefly and tenuously. When I looked up, his eyes met mine for a brief second before he quickly looked away as though he had carelessly exposed a terrible secret about himself, one he could never take back.
That night, he took an older girl into the sand dunes to make out while a group of us hung around the pool wishing someone amongst us had a fake i.d. so we could buy beer. Alex and I barely talked as we headed back to his place at the end of the evening. The silence in the elevator hung in the air along with the sickly sweet smell of coconut tanning oil and stale sweat from the bodies of that day’s sunbathers. I climbed in bed next to him, jealous and hurt, and willed myself into the unconsciousness of sleep.
Early that morning, just before sunrise, I felt a heavy weight slide over my leg while someone’s arm draped itself across my body. I had been sleeping on my side, my back facing Alex. And here I was now, awake, feeling his body pressed against mine, my leg pinned under the weight of his leg, his arm thrown over me, heavy and protective. Paranoia overtook me completely. I wanted to turn over and kiss him and finally know what this boy tasted like. And yet, I was convinced it might be a setup, a way for him to expose me and all my perversion and ugliness to the world. My breathing became shallow and my mouth went dry. My own muscles were tight and every joint in my body burned from the tension of immobility. I wanted to change positions, to relieve the ache I felt. Yet I knew the ecstasy of being enveloped in his arms might never be mine again.
And so I lay there. Afraid to move for fear I’d wake him. Afraid to wake him for fear he’d move. It was the sweetest agony I have ever known.
When I think about Alex today, it’s hard to imagine he was ever my friend, much less the object of my complete and total adoration. Someone told me he is married and lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Or is it Gainesville? He owns a kitchen and bath showroom, selling marble tile and high end plumbing fixtures. I imagine his comfortable suburban life, living in a white cape cod style house, (window boxes full of geraniums), perched on a half-acre lot with a perfectly manicured green lawn watered by an underground sprinkler system that turns itself on each evening when the sun goes down (to better take advantage of decreased rates of evaporation during the night). The sprinkler system is set so it will never, ever hit the sparkling SUV and the Audi parked in the driveway. I imagine the furniture he and his wife have chosen to decorate their home. A dark blue, camelback sofa anchors the living room. There are wing chairs and a Persian rug. The mantle over the fireplace is stuffed with photographs of family, friends and, no doubt, children. Candles from Pottery Barn perfume the air with fragrances with names like ‘Sassafrass’ and ‘Cinnabar’. And white sheets, white linen sheets wrap around the king-size mattress in their master bedroom. It’s a comfortable house, snug and warm in the winter and open to the breezes in the summer. They are happy there. And I am happy for them.
For I know that once, in what now seems like another lifetime, Alex gave me a gift: a pair of blood red Yves Saint Laurent men’s French cut bikini briefs with a little white YSL logo clinging to the edge of the pouch just where my pubic hair began. He insisted that he be able to watch me while I tried them on, my growing erection straining against the fabric, betraying my desire for him. And he laughed. He laughed not in derision, but in delight. A lover watching his mistress while she donned a brand-new red negligee.
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