and I had been friends
for three, maybe four years. I haven't seen him anywhere for about
two decades, at a party, on the street, at a bar, zip, … nothing.
I could have called him, but didn't. He could have called me, but
didn't. I have no idea where he might be and I don't know anyone
who does. I've thought of him often and wondered if it could have
turned out differently.
I'll never forget
the Sunday afternoon in the Castro when we met. It was "Beer
Bust" at a bar called the Pendulum, a sea of mostly black faces,
animated, laughing, drinking … cruising. I was seated near the door
on a high bench opposite the bar when I saw him come in, one of
the handsomest black men, one of the handsomest men, period, I have
ever seen. His good looks enthralled me: dark, sharply defined features,
curly hair and large soft brown eyes made me rejoice in my desire
for men. He wore an impeccable tailored light blue-gray suit, uncharacteristic
for that place rudely called "Nairobi West."
Just inside the door
he hesitated, then moved tentatively into the throng. Focusing on
his uneasy gait, I recognized him as another disabled man. Others,
close to him, noticed too, and stepped back to let him pass. They
probably saw his cane before I did. Its carved wooden bull's head
would make sense to me later when I discovered we both shared the
earth sign Taurus and a birthday, April 29th. I took this as an
omen, a sign that we were fated to meet.
In crowds like this,
I'd remain in the security of my safe place until the pressure in
my bladder forced me out of my seat. Always unstable in crowds in
those days, I had begun to feel the delayed effects of polio (soon
I would start to use a cane myself). Unable to see where my feet
would step in the crush, I struggled for balance, fearful I'd fall
if bumped. So, I would wait until some acquaintance was near enough
to ask, "Please, would you save my place?" The sight of Marcus made
security irrelevant. I quickly moved from my safe-haven bench to
intercept him as he headed to get a drink.
Thrilled, I recognized
a feeling I had rarely explored, the desire to connect with another
disabled man. That desire, coupled with what I believed was his
vulnerability, touched me deeply. My experience had taught me that
disability was incompatible with beauty, but now I saw beauty and
disability in the same body and I felt euphoric. This handsome stranger
was someone I had to meet.
I've wondered if
he noticed my disability from the beginning. I don't recall if I
ever asked. When I told him I found his disability as much an attraction
as his looks, he dropped his eyes and coyly smiled. "Michael," he
said, "no one has ever been that direct with me." He was eager to
talk about his disability experience. I was eager as well. As I
got to know Marcus, my desire for him increased and I hoped to get
him into bed. As he shyly told me his story in bits and pieces I
was moved deeply.
Marcus was born
with cerebral palsy. His mother, unable to cope with a disabled
child, abandoned him shortly after his birth. After years of foster
homes he was welcomed by the Pentecostal church, where he was told
he would have a home with a God of tender mercies (no matter how
sterile, punitive and self-righteous that home turned out to be).
At church Marcus met the woman who became his wife, who felt it
her Christian duty to marry him and set him, the one who had lost
Christ, on the path of righteousness. With the help of Jesus, she'd
turn him away from men. Marcus had two children with his wife, but
without a job, with only his Social Security, he could barely support
By the time we met,
Marcus had left his wife and children and had become the lover of
an older black man who provided a roof over his head and gave him
freer rein than he'd ever known. Marcus felt tied to that security.
He was not satisfied with it, but with his good looks and beautiful
singing voice the only success he'd ever known, he couldn't let
go of it, either.
His conflict about
being gay was separate from yet intricately woven into his identity
as a black man and a disabled man. He never talked of himself as
husband or father and often wondered if loving men was worth the
risk of damnation. He wanted freedom but didn't know how to live
it and seemed bereft of any concept of himself as a man capable
of independence. Although I saw more options for myself, I struggled
with similar demons.
One afternoon Marcus
descended the stairs from my apartment and turned back to continue
our conversation from the sidewalk below. As he looked up towards
me, I cautioned him that he stood on a part of the sidewalk covered
in pigeon droppings and suggested he step back a few feet to avoid
unwelcome splatters. Unable to step backwards easily, Marcus was
immobilized. I knew what he felt because I had experienced similar
awkwardness in public, feelings that make me want to disappear,
as if I'd never existed.
I knew that others
had seen the same split second of confusion on my face that I saw
on his, but on that sunny afternoon I understood for the first time
how the merging of self with disability produced shame. Like Marcus,
I'd always thought that I was my
disability. The great pain in that realization put me in awe of
how unyieldingly present and deeply personal our disabilities were.
So, there was Marcus
on the sidewalk below. The expression on his face vanished in the
moment it takes to exhale one breath, but it was a breath that contained
a lifetime. After he managed to move I continued our conversation
as if nothing had happened, for that's my preference when it happens
to me and it seemed the kindest thing to do.
Time passed. Months
later, after his doctors assured him that surgery would help him
walk better, Marcus made the momentous decision to have his hip
replaced. The surgery caused a deep-tissue staph infection that
took his doctors well over a year to diagnose. He was hospitalized
numerous times during that period. The doctors, those people that
promise to do no harm, insisted that his pain was psychosomatic.
"You need to see
a psychiatrist," they said.
them," I said.
On one hospital visit
I found him depressed and empty of spirit. When a nurse appeared
with yet another injection, one he hadn't anticipated, his chest
collapsed with defeat, his eyes filled with tears and he pleaded,
"Oh no …, no …, not another one!"
In an instant I understood
how a lifetime of medical practices, things enacted upon him, had
culminated in that moment. He had reached his limit. He could hold
no more. He was bankrupt! Once again, I recognized my own pain in
his. I wiped his eyes and silently cried with him.
made a deep connection between us (Marcus said so himself), one
I hoped would be the basis for a loving relationship. But I too
was bankrupt. I feared the self I uncovered would be an incomplete
jigsaw puzzle with psyche scattered and pieces lost. Were they lost
for good or not yet discovered? I had no idea, and like Marcus,
I lacked the faith to trust in myself.
Marcus and I were
sexual together only a few times. I would like to say we made love,
but what we did was too perfunctory for that. Everything about him
aroused me. When he was amused, a sexy chuckle started deep in his
chest. "Mm, Mm, Mm" he would voice, his eyes cast down with just
a hint of a smile. It sounded masculine and enticing. "Michael,
you're too much," he'd say and I'd double my efforts to amuse him.
He smelled of cologne and manliness. His beautiful smooth dark brown
skin covered well-defined muscles. Veins faceted the tops of his
strong hands and the insides of his forearms. The rounded hardness
of his neck and shoulders, coupled with sweetly musky armpits, convinced
me that men making love to each other could be no sin at all.
I had no trouble
making love to the atrophy of his legs. I longed to kiss, smell,
lick and taste his toes, feet, calves and thighs as I moved slowly
up into the hairy cleft of his rounded buttocks. I loved his legs
because they were his legsthey
served him well in the only way they couldand because seldom
had anyone made love to mine. I desired all of him, not just the
I wanted a heart-body
connection, wanted to witness him being wanted by me and see him
let that in. Even though I'd known that kind of lovemaking infrequently,
I knew it was possible, and wanted him to know it, too. I hoped
making love with Marcus, another disabled man, would be healing
for me. I didn't realize that my feelings for him were projections
of my self: If he saw me as beautiful then I could believe myself
to be beautiful too.
for the conclusion of "Marcus"
in the May issue of BENT
last appeared in BENT with
Acting for Others, Acting for Myself
BENT: A Journal of Cripgay Voices/March