by Michael Perreault

Marcus 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 himself.

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.

"Damn 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.

Our disabilities 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 legs—they served him well in the only way they could—and because seldom had anyone made love to mine. I desired all of him, not just the "good" parts.

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.

©2002 Michael Pereault


Look for the conclusion of "Marcus"
in the May issue of BENT


Michael Perreault
last appeared in BENT with
Acting for Others, Acting for Myself



BENT: A Journal of Cripgay Voices/March 2002