Lightning in a Jar: Cat’s Out of the Bag

Chapter 11:

“Well, hello! And, who might this delicious young man be?”

Speaking with his usual flare for the dramatic, as if he were emoting on a stage, and not standing in the musty hallways of our high school, Max was referring to James. We were amidst a flurry of students who were in the process of getting to their next class, some of whom couldn’t help but stare at us, drawn as they were by Max’s gregarious persona.

I blanched. Max and I had been talking about venturing into the city, when suddenly James appeared out of nowhere. Having completely ignored the coda I had established—no speaking to me at school (except in geometry, of course)—James had nonchalantly greeted me as if I were any old friend whom he’d bumped into between classes.

Only, I wasn’t.

I was, however, in a clandestine relationship with him.  Emphasis on clandestine. Private. Mum’s the word, and all that.

Since that day in the park, James and I had become practically inseparable. Outside of school, that is. No one knew or suspected one iota. We’d meet surreptitiously after school, taking walks through his secluded, tree-shaded neighborhood. Then we’d head to his home, and slip under the covers of his bed. No going all the way, mind you–I wasn’t ready for that–just a lot of hot and heavy, shall we say, breathing. You get the picture.

I couldn’t get enough of him. When we were together, I felt more buoyant, more adventurous, and yes, more alive. Happier than I’d been in ages. Still, I’d tell no one about our relationship. As far as I was concerned, that’s how it had to be, mostly because of the embarrassment I felt in being with a younger guy. The last thing I wanted was to let the cat out of the bag. Still, every time we met, in my head there were many others in the room along with us. And, they were all judging.

whiteheat2as4 “Top of the world, Ma,” cries James Cagney in one of the best gangster movies of all time, “White Heat.”

First and foremost, my parents, who’d have read me the riot act had they known what I was up to, particularly since, in the six months that I dated Jake, I never stepped foot in his bedroom. Then, there was my best friend, Liza, who was smarter and savvier than I, and almost certain to see my interest in James as a sign of inopportune weakness.

As for my other friends, whom I’d party and hang out with, I could feel their disapproving eyes boring tiny holes into my back. Had this been one of those James Cagney gangster flicks, you would’ve heard me yelling, “Top of the World, Ma!” as my parents and friends riddled me with bullets for bringing a pox upon all their houses.

So, for these reasons, I lived my double life. Publicly, I continued to meet up with my friends, have lunch with George, and have the occasional sleepover at Liza’s. At home, I was the dutiful (sort of) daughter, doing my chores and homework, while my mother sewed my dress for the prom.  And, whenever I could, I’d sneak off to see James. Yes, everything was going smoothly.

Until Max.

I hadn’t counted on Max.

Max was a senior and the only openly gay guy at my school. Jake somehow knew him and had introduced us one night, just before a school performance of the musical, Good News. Max, who had designed the scenery, and the show’s posters which had been plastered all over town, was backstage doing last minute makeup touches on the female lead.

Upon meeting me, he took hold of my face and, holding it up to the light, cheekily remarked, “Miss Thing, don’t ever wear blue eye shadow. It’s absolutely not your color.”

I wasn’t wearing any makeup that night, but I figured, he must know what he was talking about. Most days, Max came to school wearing tons of makeup. He’d keep it on until one of the teachers sent him to the men’s room to wash off. He’d oblige but, first chance he got, you’d find him back in the bathroom, reapplying it. Max never stopped testing the school’s boundaries, and would often end up in the principal’s office.

I didn’t know what to make of him, having never met anyone who seemed to enjoy calling as much attention to himself as he did. Without fear of consequence. When everybody else was trying to fit in, he was embracing his own flamboyant self.

And now, he was commanding me to spend the day with him in the city, and there was no turning him down.

“Miss Thing, what is wrong with you?” He cried in mock horror. “I can’t believe you haven’t been to any of the vintage clothing shops in East Village. Looks like I’m going to have to take you there myself! This weekend, no excuses. Trust me, you will love it!”

I was skeptical. I’d never gone into Manhattan with anyone outside my family, except Liza, and our favorite place to shop was Macy’s or Gimbel’s in Herald Square, so I didn’t know what to expect. But Max knew I had a thing for movies of the 30s and 40s, particularly the musicals, and I did love the style–padded shoulders, sweeping skirts and cocktail hats–so, maybe it would be fun.

While we stood in the school hallway finalizing plans, James happened by. Max waited expectantly for an introduction.

“So, whom do we have here, Miss Thing?” He tapped his foot, impatiently. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”

I tensed up, as a sense of doom crossed my face. I wasn’t sure James could hold his own with Max. In some ways, James seemed too innocent.

Max glanced from me to James, and slowly, he nodded, as if things were beginning to gel.

“Oh, I see,” was all he said.

“Max,” I began to stammer. “This is–”

Max cut me off, taking matters into his own hands.

“Dear boy, I’m Max and believe me, the pleasure is all mine.”

James shrugged, muttering a casual, “Hey,” under his breath.

“This is James,” I intervened. “A friend from geometry. He sometimes helps me with homework assignments.” I was hoping my words would convince Max that there was nothing more than a distant connection between us.

“You mean he’s in that remedial class you’ve told me about?” Max nodded, seemingly going along with the bill of goods I was selling. “Now, why didn’t I sign up for that class, I wonder?”

I could tell James was feeling uncomfortable by his keen interest in him. Frankly, so was I.

“Well, then,” said Max, “I don’t suppose James would like to join us for our excursion Saturday?”

Getting together with James and Sam was one thing, but James and Max? Out of the question.

“Probably not a good idea,” I replied before James could say anything. His shyness seemed to have kicked in, full throttle.

“No?” He feigned a forlorn look. “How disappointing. Oh well, I guess I’ll leave you two alone. Seems the lad is eager to help you with, ahem–your homework?”

With a smile and a flick of his hand, he tipped the fedora he was wearing to one side, adding,

“Until Saturday, Dear Heart! I expect a full report on your–what was it? Oh, yes. Your homework!”

And, with that, he strode off, disappearing down the hall.

“Uh, that was weird,” said James, matter-of-factly.

The bell marking the start of the next period sounded. There’d be no time for explanations. I simply nodded in agreement, and headed to my class, wondering what Max had surmised about me and James. Could he tell there was something between us? Would he even care?

Knowing Max, I’d be in for a grilling.

(To be continued.)

Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the page, Lightning in a Jar: High School Years.


Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Growing up, whenever we traveled to Venezuela, the relatives we visited most were on my mother’s side. She had five sisters and a brother, and collectively she and her siblings had six spouses and 23 kids, which made for robust family get-together’s, lots of dancing, and plenty of tasty, Venezuelan dishes.

My uncle, far right, sometime in 1953.

Yet of all my uncles, the one who was most dear to me was on my father’s side and we didn’t have to fly to Caracas to see him. Like us, Tio Emilio lived in New York, just a train ride away. And yet we didn’t see him much and we never visited his home. Tio Emilio had a wandering soul and wherever he went, he seemed to have one foot out the door. Which is probably why he joined the United States Navy and why he now worked for a cruise line. To see the world. But when he returned, it was always a big deal.

I wasn’t sure what his job on the ship was, but I imagined he was a world-class chef, preparing culinary delights for the passengers. Later, I learned that he was more of a cook’s aid, washing dishes and peeling carrots. It didn’t matter. In our home, he was our very own master chef, whipping up sumptuous meals for all of us.  Hands down, his was the best Venezuelan paella I’d ever tasted.

A visit from Tio Emilio generated much excitement. My mother would put on her best dress and bring out the fine china. She’d then follow my uncle around the kitchen as he chopped, basted and stirred. Like a shadow, she’d be ready to provide him with his every need. Olive oil? Check. Garlic? Check. Green pepper? Raisins? Check, check.

Looking suave in Manhattan, 1960.

Scooping up the chopped onions and garlic, he’d toss them into the simmering pan. He’d wait for the onions to turn translucent before adding the peppers, tomatoes and saffron. All the while, Tio Emilio would sip wine and smile serenely as the aromas from the pan signaled his masterpiece would soon be ready.

While my uncle worked his magic, my mother would regale him with the family stories he had missed while away. How I loved to see them together! They were as one in the kitchen—laughing, chatting and drinking, truly enjoying each other’s company. Which is why I hated the long spells of not seeing my uncle.

He appeared and disappeared months at a time.  When is he coming back?  My parents wouldn’t say. Years later, I learned the reason for the long absences. My uncle was living a double life: the one we saw and the one we weren’t allowed to see. Turns out, my uncle was gay.  Don’t ask, don’t tell.

I wondered what it must have been like for him to have to hide this part of his life from us and, I assume, from the world at large. In a way, I was jealous of those in his inner circle, the ones that knew him in a way I could not. At the same time, my heart went out to him, for not being able to live openly, freely. I wanted to let him know it didn’t matter to me.  But I never said a word. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was our motto long before the words took meaning.  Eventually, I moved away from New York and saw my uncle even less.

Then one day, my father called to tell me my uncle had died. Cause of death was kept as hidden from us as his homosexuality once had been. I heard he died from alcoholism. I later heard it was complications as a result of being HIV positive. It didn’t matter. Silently, in the darkness of my Seattle home, I mourned for my uncle and for all that could have been.

A few days later I received a package in the mail with a note written by my father:

“Hija, your uncle wanted you to have this.”

Peeling away the layers of brown wrapping and tissue paper, I discovered a photo album simply labeled, “Fotos de Emilio.” It was filled with black and white pictures depicting his life as a gay man, intermingled with a few photos of his nieces and nephews. Here, at last, both worlds came together as one.  Pictures of his world travels and of time spent with friends and with family.  My uncle. How handsome, how debonair.  A kind and tolerant man, who lived his life with civility and solitary dignity. Here was the life he never spoke of, but in the end he wanted me to know. In his own way, my uncle was telling me, this is what mattered most. This was his legacy to me.