Brian stood in the middle of the room wearing my brown suede gloves. He was holding them up, palms open toward him. The shape of my own hand, molded in the weather-stained leather, stood out empty but complete on the end of his stump.

With Lots of Love
and Gentle Thoughts

By Ralph Smith


Leonardo da Vinci: study of hands

The one man I've loved most intensely was a one-handed heterosexual cross-dressing alcoholic. To anyone who can hear this, I say it without reservation, because I've always felt it as a simple truth. I remember him not only because of love, but also because our friendship changed the direction of my approach to disability.

Over the last ten years I've told this story to about a dozen people, always leaving out details that each is not qualified to understand or tolerate. It should be told as a whole, as it is here, because it's a story about acceptance, something I've always wanted, and therefore something I've always tried to give.

I never had to think about why I liked Brian, or why I suddenly loved him. Certainly his outcast identity drew me to him. It was a quality we shared, though mine had long been masked by perfect defenses, mannerisms that made me seem to fit in. Our friendship lasted briefly, but the memory and the feeling of it survive.

We first met at the medical college where I'd been working in administration for a month; Brian had just been hired in the kitchen. He was a professional chef, now working well below his skill and income levels. Going out into the winter air for a cigarette, I noticed a slight figure at the far side of the parking lot. Dressed in faded jeans, a dark overcoat, and a stocking cap, his profile was exaggerated by a cigarette butt sticking out above his goatee.

As if by agreement, we made our way to a square brick pillar. In the pause after saying howdy, Brian held up his right arm to show me that ours was going to be no ordinary handshake. His sleeve pulled back to reveal only wrist bones and the slight suggestion of a thumb, proof, he later explained, of surgical attempts to shape digits.

After brief instruction in his unique method of shaking hands, we stood back and smiled at our accomplishment, smiles that generated an instant camaraderie. Brian bet me I'd never have guessed he's a cross-dresser. I matched that revelation with the fact that I'm gay, and he finished by affirming that he's straight. Just matter-of-fact stuff. We each grunted our acknowledgment in turn, and that was that.

We dragged on our fags and talked through clouds of breath about how great it was to work in the same building. It was as if a great ceremony had taken place simply by meeting and being completely frank, truthful, up front. We tossed our butts, promising to meet again as soon as possible. For almost a year we did just that whenever the bustle of the college allowed our breaks to coincide.

During that time I began to busy myself with articulating a model of Brian's experience. I wanted to know what it was to be Brian, the timings of his life, the very weight of his feelings. I shuddered to think of why the attempt to"'fix" his hand was aborted. In the symbol-driven language that is my natural way of thinking, I began to see his stump not as something offensive (it was never that to me), but as the focus of everything tortured about his existence. An archetype of vivisection was in it, decades of conscious torment. At times I saw in it my own torment objectified and visible. At other times it made me feel that I had never suffered at all.

Soon enough I'd learn that Brian was an alcoholic, that we both grew up in the same part of the East Coast, knew familiar street names, shared at least one mutual acquaintance. All these things hastened our feeling of connection, but I also came to realize that we were both on the run—and this time Brian would run first.

Away from the college, we tramped the streets together; talked into the wee hours; laughed together; froze at the bus stop together. Brian suffered terribly from the cold. His poor circulation turned his stump blue, but he never covered it, just drew it up into his coat sleeve. I worried about his suffering, but he was so gruff, so determined to be dauntless, that I learned to take no notice.

As we hoofed along the streets, Brian bobbed up and down in his characteristic way, rising up on his toes at every step. Forever self-conscious, he asked me one day about the difference between his walk and mine—as if one physical difference wasn't enough, we should also compare mannerisms. I told him I'd be walking the same way (which was true) if not for lifting weights. At my apartment he made a point of demonstrating how he could lift my barbell. If I could do something then he should prove he could do it, too. For Brian, life was a competitive event.

He was especially quick to ask if I'd shared the futon in my apartment with my former lover. When I answered Yes he eyed it briefly and turned away. Most often we'd huddle together in the sepia atmosphere of his one-room attic space. We talked about everything and anything. His keen intelligence, something he seemed almost ashamed of, filled me with appreciation and delight every time it flexed. I could see so many good things about Brian so clearly, things he seemed blind to. He was benighted about himself.

I knew that we were both searching for our selves. I couldn't put it in those words just yet, but Brian was giving me clues that I was willing to pay attention to, proposing equations worth solving. Finally one day I said, "Look, I come here to see you, not this other person you become when you're drinking." "Fair enough," was his reply. The drinking continued, of course. I never expected it to stop. This was my attempt to tell him that I accepted him in spite of his appearance—his clothes, his drunkenness, the totality of his eccentric self-presentation.

When our discussions were over, often I'd stay the night. We slept together in his double bed—he in his silk panties, me in my boxers. (Obviously his discomfort about the futon was not about me, personally.) We listened to Eric Clapton's "Unplugged" continuously, and often fell asleep to the strains of "Layla." One drunken night he rolled over, gave one of my pecs a grope, then turned his back to me again—some kind of mischievous goodnight salute, I thought, but I wondered about that. When I returned this "salute" the following night, a sober one, he pushed my hand away and told me not to do that. Fair enough.

I've never lusted after straight guys; there's just no spark in it for me. Sometimes I'd see Brian's dick hanging out of his panties, or just swingin' in the breeze as he dove to get another pair. Maybe it was the strange juxtaposition, but to me it was just an average dick, just an ordinary sex organ. Ordinariness is what I wanted, and that's what I got with Brian. Our extraordinary friendship was by some measure ordinary and blessedly uncomplicated. We could see its oddities, but as no more than the pattern in the carpet.

By today's standards, the college would be called a "hostile work environment." The president was a shrieking whip-cracker, the employees lived in fear, and the only peace I felt was in the parking lot or wandering through the morgue. Even my boss, the human resources director, self-medicated to get through the day. In light of all this, the Human Rights Code that hung on her office door seemed like a joke.

One day Brian stopped by my office to tell me that someone had filed a complaint with his supervisor. "I don't like the way he leans on my sandwich," was the gist of it. Since I'd seen how Brian held his forearm perpendicular when slicing a sandwich, I knew it was an outrageous complaint. It reminded me of an incident he'd recounted about a previous job. Badly cut by an improperly stored and lethally sharp carving knife, he reported it to his manger, who hissed, "suffer in silence."

My own silence, my effort to "fit in" for the convenience of others, was killing me, had killed me in the past. Silence made my "achievement" rotten. It stank. It reeked of injustice. I vowed to drop silence like a rotten egg. Brian was showing me the way.

Eventually Brian kept his promise to show me his drag photographs. Unconventional even by drag standards, they were a delight, a triumph of originality over convention. Their true meaning, Brian's meaning, seemed couched in some other, hermetic language, one I neither understood nor asked about.

Another moment made a more singular impact on me. I was lying on the bed sorting through cassette tapes when I looked up to see Brian standing in the middle of the room wearing my brown suede gloves. He was holding them up, palms open toward him. The shape of my own hand, molded in the weather-stained leather, stood out empty but complete on the end of his stump. Slowly he considered first one glove and then the other. For a moment his eyes stopped moving and stared blankly between his forearms; he would have been staring directly at me, except clearly he was in a different world.

Once I understood what was happening, I wondered again, as I had many times before, whether or not fingers can be transplanted from a cadaver (I had friends in the morgue). I wondered how many of my own fingers I could spare without life becoming too"inconvenient." By the time I caught myself in this reverie, the gloves were gone. It was just me and Brian again, without that momentary thick intensity. He didn't say much for the rest of the evening. I wanted to understand, but instead of wondering, I simply accepted—as I had with the drag photos.

Alone together, we were two ordinary Joes fumbling in the mystery of our selves. Out in the world next morning we were once again fearful, desperate, driven and divided.

Often he asked for assurances that I would be a "brother," that no matter what time of day or night, no matter the distance, I would come if he called. He pledged the same. I knew this was an ideal Brian wanted; I knew that his alcoholism (which also kept him penniless) made it an ideal he could never act on. It was the kind of commitment I wanted for myself. It seemed like part of a solution to my feeling of perpetual exile. If I had a friend like Brian, could I be at home in the world at last?

I was beginning to realize how much Brian's friendship meant to me in different ways, some of them contradictory. Pegged as one of society's golden boys, I delighted in "wasting" myself on him, in slapping the face of the establishment. In a deeper way, I felt like I was practicing sincerity, even though I feared that sincerity was doomed. The men in the bars I followed Brian into seemed insulted by my presence. Stubble and dressing- down and keeping my mouth shut helped, but still they regarded me with suspicion. What of sincerity then? And what of honesty if they could have seen Brian's "unmentionables?"

Brian was a hunted man, dogged by the same shadow as I was: patent unacceptability. Society had made it clear that our very selves were unacceptable, and so we lived outside our bodies, existing on a kind of mental plateau, never grounded, never experiencing the verity of embodiment. Our emotional availability was suspended by the necessity of constant battle. How could we escape from that trap of compulsive calculation of mind and the schizoid feeling it engendered? Brian's solution was simple: drinking.

Despite our connection, emotional unavailability meant Brian could not accept that I could accept him. Cutting ties was his way of ensuring that the hunting party was not getting too close.

When I learned that he was moving again, this time to another province, I was not surprised. Weeks after he had gone I received a letter that described my own emotions exactly.

Well I have a feeling that you are mad as hell at me and feeling hurt and offended. Well let me first say as hurt as you may feel in regards to my not contacting you before my departure it was not intentional. You are my very dear friend to say the least. Its just how I do things. I was leaving Toronto and you were the only person who made that decision difficult for me. So as not to get all emotional etc, it just worked out better if we didn't see each other before I left. Although I really didn't make a conscious decision to do it that way, mostly because I was drunk from Friday the 13, [to] this Wed the 18th when I left. But looking back it was probably better all around that it happened like it did. So I'll leave it at that. And if you choose to write to me I'm sure I will hear your side of the discussion.

When I finally did write, I waited weeks for a reply that never came. His letter included his new work address, so I phoned the office. An indignant voice barked that Brian had been fired for "inappropriate behavior." Likely he'd shown up for work drunk, but the angry tone of that voice suggested something worse, something sordid. Had the discovery of a pair of pink silk panties inspired redneck rage?

Brian's insistence on being himself, even when that self was destructive, showed me how personal truth and social hypocrisy threaten one another at every turn. I loved him for allowing me to see it so clearly, in his life and in my own. Brian's trust had inspired in me the same feelings that I read in the last words of his letter: "Lots of love and gentle thoughts, Brian."

©2002 Ralph Smith

For readers interested in learning more about autism, I recommend this link. -R.S.

.

Ralph Smith
lives in Ontario with two cats and a computer stuffed full of research on neurological and developmental disorders. He researches Autistic Spectrum Conditions, with side trips into cross-disability cooperation. His hobbies are equally "driven," including a keen interest in clay sculpture, graphics and anatomy. Read his essay The Walking Cure, also in BENT.

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2002