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.
Lots of Love
and Gentle Thoughts
By Ralph Smith
Leonardo da Vinci: study of hands
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.
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 runand 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 mineas 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
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 appearancehis 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 bedhe
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 againsome 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.
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.
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 acceptedas 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
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
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.
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,
©2002 Ralph Smith
For readers interested in learning
more about autism, I recommend this
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
sculpture, graphics and anatomy. Read his essay The
Walking Cure, also in BENT.
BENT: A Journal of CripGay