by Agustin Eliab Juarez
Dog and Buck were cousins growing up in Akron, Ohio. They had little or next to nothing in that small eastern town known for its farming equipment, Goodrich, Goodyear and Firestone tires and straight out working-class population. To them, life was a grind no matter what you had - but so was everyone else's. Get up, have coffee, go to work, kick ass, buy a pack of smokes and go home. Sometimes the cousins had a buck for a beer, but mostly they worked their butts off to make a living.
"If you got a complaint, I don't wanna hear it," said Buck to his younger cousin Dog. That was their life, and they lived it, simply because they had a chance to make it in the status quo world without ever getting into trouble with the law, or without having to resort to drugs and violence like so many of their peers did. Their starched white shirts contrasted their black skin, defying the "look" expected in the neighborhood. They looked like nerds, these two, but like Dog said, "Gotta dress to impress," meaning, if the law stopped you on the street you don't look like some petty criminal.
In many ways, theirs is an American Story, an American Dream tale of two cousins who got through life only because their family blood ran strong. It was red blood, thick and with good-old fashioned DNA: you work hard, save what you can and buy a little house on the outskirts of town. "Ain't gotta be white to get the dream," Buck once heard somebody say, probably the barber at the corner, the guy who would buzz-cut your hair for two dollars and never stop talking as you sat captured in his leather chair, having to listen to his incessant ramblings that in the end had no moral to the story.
Now, Buck and Dog were like twins in a way, identical to be clear as they attended the same high school, were in the same grade, had the same teachers, hung out together playing on the baseball team, winning chess championships and shyly capturing Helen and Geraldine's attention at the sock-hop, two girls who lived down the street on Hastings between Rutherford and Blanket. The cousins asked them out one day after class - on their way to a game, wearing their beautiful gold and red letter jackets with the big "A" on it that stood for Akron High School; the girls smiled. They couldn't resist going out with athletes - and a good looking pair the two.
The cousins, as they were called, looked handsome and winning that day and so, the Sock Hop. To each and every one of the four, the future looked bright, as the girls would attend technical school, one becoming a nurse and the other an administrative secretary to a big tire manufacturing company. Neither of the girls smoked or drank. A few years later after graduation, the two couples had a double wedding where people cheered and cried of joy, hugged and kissed and threw flowers and rice as they stepped out of church – First Baptist – and enjoyed a small wedding party where no alcohol was served. One such Uncle Benjamin brought in a shiny flask of local firewater but the newlywed boys would have none of it.
"Please drink it outside, Uncle Benny," said Dog, pointing to the alley and almost barking the request that his new wife ordered him to give.
"You go tell your uncle Benjamin to drink his juice outside," she whispered, looking lovely in her white gown and corsage, she too pointing her little index finger in the direction of the back door. Uncle Benny smiled and grunted, "Uh-humm. Uh-humm!" with that grainy voice he'd acquired through the years due to his love for alcohol. He could have made a scene but didn't. "Wasn't the right place or time," he thought the next day, holding his head in a hangover because he'd forgotten to eat dinner - the buffet served at the reception.
The cousins didn't plan things the way you and I do, instead they talked about dreams, picnics and baseball.
"Gonna have a son plays first base," said Buck.
"That position is much harder than you think, Dog. You gotta play just a step and a half off base to catch those line drives, and then be ready for the double play. You gotta be able to turn on a dime make that play, ah-ha. Especially you right handed."
Dog bit his lips and thought for a moment.
"I'd rather my boy play shortstop, now that's a pressure cooker!"
Neither of their boys would grow up to play baseball. And neither father would ever attend a high school game after themselves graduating from the same school. What the two cousins did do, however, is magically get their respective wives pregnant within a week of each other. They would each have a son, and the newborns, like their fathers, would grow up together and thrive just like they did.
Michael, named after the Angel of the Lord, was born first, followed by Dontae, named after the famous writer who wrote about the inferno. Two boys were named after two figures having to do with God.
As the years passed and the two younger cousins grew up attending the same high school as moms and dads, and even having the same dang teachers moms and dads had in the same school, Michael and Dontae flourished academically, one playing the piano, and the other singing in the school choir. As they spent all their time together and because they came from a tight-knit family, the two boys knew each other well, telling stories of their adventures while apart, of swimming in the pool in their tight Speedos, taking hot showers and toweling dry with a hard-on.
One day they noticed there was never talk of girls. They were sitting in the backyard in the quiet of the neighborhood as moms and dads – as they called their collective parents - were out to a Pizza Dinner as they did every Thursday evening, when Michael said, "Dad is always asking me when I'm taking out Carla on her first date." Carla was the girl down the street, pretty as peach pie.
There was silence as each swallowed hard and leaned their head down to the ground, though not an action to be interpreted as shame. Dontae went to sit at the swings, the gift given to both of them on their tenth birthday but kept at his cousin's house because they had a bigger backyard. There was a pair of swings, so, after a bit of silence, and wanting no one to hear, Michael the Angel occupied the seat next to Dontae.
"What are you gonna say next time he asks?" he muttered, adjusting his glasses onto his nose. Michael considered. He could not tell his father he did not like girls, how could he? What would happen if he did? Would the earth shake in its foundation and damn him to hell? Would dad beat me, trying to kick the shit out of my sexual desire until I became heterosexual; to please him? What would mom say? The neighbors they cared so much for? Teachers, the student body class? Yes, there were gay boys at school, and yes, they were friends and hung out, and yes, there's been Johnny from around the corner that masturbated with him in the basement one Saturday afternoon. And a different Michael who liked to undress in the showers and show off his penis like it was a first prize in competition for no one had one his size. They both knew the other Michael had a big one and oh, boy, was it exciting!
"I don't want to let them down," he finally said, you know, Dontae, how I feel, I mean…"
Dontae just shook his head.
"I know. I do know. But we have to say something sometime. I mean, I think mom knows. My mom anyhow. She's seen me sitting before the mirror like a girl getting ready for a date. Boys don't do that."
Now the two younger cousins were living apart, separated between Manhattan where Dontae attended the prestigious New York University School of Law, and Philadelphia where Michael practiced as a social worker attending to AIDS ridden youth and their families who wanted to understand just what this virus was and how could they get rid of it – forever! The two younger cousins went their separate ways only because they found their mission in life, and because nothing lasts forever, each did their thing, and each took a vow to remain as close as could be though apart, meaning that Dontae could take the train to Philly on Friday afternoon to visit Michael who would return home from work at around six-thirty, beaten and torn apart emotionally because he was seeing death before his very eyes, and in most cases, the demise of kids younger than he dying of a disease they did not expect would come their way.
When he opened the door he would almost run to his cousin the future lawyer and hug him hard and long, wanting to cry, wanting to slip into bed and bury himself in blankets like he did most days of the week after work, the hurt was such. Also, Michael was alone and lonely, so he needed a hug, but he would never trespass that line to sleep with his kin. That was unspoken, it would never happen and it never did happen. But a hug can cure lots, the suffered pain dissipating slowly like a passing cloud, only to return when you least expect it.
The two had fights, lots of fights, though none of them memorable enough to write about, mostly it was petty things came out of frustration because after all, their families had finally given up on having grandchildren as each was an only child. They were, in the end more like brothers – though Dog would disagree and say derogatory things like, "they're more like sisters to each other." Neither of the boys, Dontae and Michael would ever live it down, such a disappointment they were to all. It was tough for the elder cousins to get over it, easier on the moms. Why do moms always get it? Was it some feminine thing or were women simply more understanding.
"It has to do with unconditional love, Dontae," said Michael once during a fight. Dontae was turning out much like his father in that way. A recent boyfriend said he felt alienated by Dontae because he spent every other weekend with his cousin in Philly who always seemed to be working extra hours taking care of those he grew close to, sometimes ignoring his visiting cousin for the entire weekend.
"I have work, I have people I care for, they need me. They're my new family, Dontae!" he would scream as he was leaving on Saturday morning to make home visits and at times, hospital visits to dying patients.
"What am I, chopped liver?" was his cousin's comeback, an expression learned from his newfound Jewish friends in New York.
The younger cousins looked at each other. Each knew what the other was. Each knew they had something in common, a strong bond between them that was created by…what or who or how did they both end up not liking girls? I mean, the signs were there, the lot was unspoken, each had his own little girly moves, sometimes a limp wrist or a slant of the head that was more feminine than masculine; each knew how to imitate their father but it was of no use, for nature turned out this way for them and there was no turning back the clock or remaking one's gender. Nor was it possible to change one's gender preference. It was written in stone. They did not know how to tell moms and dads of this...desire, this longing they knew not where it came from. This sexual drive that made sense to them but a way of life that only looked like problems ahead, I mean, how were they going to live with this? I mean, it wasn't them had to accept who they were, it was really society that was going to be bothered by it. Society was not yet ready for this, they knew, and being black did not help the situation. Young, Black and gay – uh-humm. Akron was the last place on earth - what with its Rednecks on every corner - about to accept these Black teenage boys now. What would become of them as adults? Would they have to run away someplace like San Francisco or New York City to feel at least accepted for whom they were?
This is hell and you know it, said one of them, now, the whispering in the open, the swings going back and forth as each thought of a way out, a way to salvation, the wind blowing roughly as it does in that part of town just at about this hour every night, day in and day out. It was something to count on, this wind.
Could the wind tell us what to do?
They were now desperate, their hands sweaty from holding onto the chains on the swing, from nervousness, from fear, from the anticipation of getting beat by dad for liking boys instead of going for sweet-talking, pig-tailed girls with braces on their teeth. Carla.
"We're going to have to do this sometime, might as well be now," Dontae said courageously, biting his lower lip, bracing for the storm. Michael looked at him with those angelic bright eyes that lit up when he smiled: big white teeth and all.
"We can do it together, gather the families that way dads can't punch and hit us until after we get home."
"Let's do it in public, ‘exclaimed Dontae, "like at the Pizza Dinner next week, that way they gotta listen to us, pay attention and behave. "
"Then we get it going home," said the other, knowing full well he had no idea how the family was going to take it, but suspecting Dads would blow their stack.
Dad Buck started smoking weed after work, Dog going along like it was supposed to happen. Someone at work told them weed helped chill things out and the dads said, "What the hell, got no boy, got a girl instead," or something like that, well, enough to convince him to chill and accept his boy would never play for the Cincinnati Reds or the Cleveland Indians, instead "they would enter beauty contests and place third," as Dog cited, clenching his teeth, trying to break them with one sound bite. The dad wanted to make girls out of them soon as he heard they were gay. Today you would think the two younger cousins would end up as transvestites selling their bodies in the meat packing district of New York City.
The boys did tell moms and dads and boy, did they ever pay for it. Dads – both of them – wanted to kick them out of the house, thinking they each would be bringing home other boys to the bedroom to have sex. They thought the world was going to end, that the Lord was soon descending from heaven, that fire would consume them leading them to the pit of hell; that the neighbors would stop talking to them, that the young gay cousins would start their melodramatic stuff just like in the movies, screaming witches and drama queens with crowns on their heads. Every single petty thing you could stack up against homosexuals became a routine part of the day at home, with the young cousins at times avoiding the other for fear of repeating the denigrating words come out of the dads' mouths. The dads got into booze, and crazy beer-drinking nights that went on all night until each fell asleep on the couch, a cigarette in one hand, a bottle of Bud in the other. The elder cousins Buck and Dog still spent all their extra time together, as did their wives what with the shopping and beauty shops, marketplace and routine ice cream shop visits to sweeten the taste of what had become a battleground at home.
Now Dontae looked at his cousin and watching him walk out the door he called his boyfriend in New York. He too was a law student though not as bright as Dontae, who at the moment was running a fierce battle for Student Body President of the Law School, a lofty and important position that would brighten up any student's resume in time to come. Corporations would take notice, look at his grade point average, see he did well in both roles while studying his third year and pop the question. Would you like to be junior partner?
The boyfriend in New York hopped on the train to meet his lover while cousin Michael visited the sick, causing another petty fight between the three: Michael because he wasn't told boyfriend was coming over, and because it was his house, but mostly he screamed because he was jealous to see his cousin Dontae with such a cute and submissive boy. Dontae got pissed because he was left alone, "abandoned" by his host, and "What else am I supposed to do? You never visit me in New York City; instead you hide in Philly like there was so much here for you! You don't even have a boyfriend." The boyfriend got into it because Dontae had never told him he visited his cousin in Philly, he thought he had another boyfriend, and that worried him, and that's what caused him to be upset. All three were upset at once, three screaming queens nearly crying and pulling each other's hair out.
In reality, no such thing happened at all. But it came very close. The fight was later settled when Michael looked at his cousin who was running his fingers through his boyfriend's hair, the boy a Cheshire cat's look on his face. They laughed together now, the argument now long forgotten as they got up and walked arm in arm for cheesesteak sandwiches down the street, a place that also served delicious fresh brew. The weekends spent together through the years went like this as if planned indeed: greets, hugs, niceties, tension, fights, kiss and make up.
Dontae wanted to win the election, if only because he had the grit and guts to do so. He was eloquent, facile in conversation, public speaking, had a flair for words, a conviction you could see right through, and the brains to do a great job as President. This was no slouch of a school, after all, so, prepared to run the student body as he saw fit, he took to the polls, showing he had a bigger future than his opponent, a Chinese girl from San Francisco who spoke eloquently but knew nothing of East Coast culture. Dontae not only recruited five students from his class to help his campaign, he talked a brilliant friend into writing his speeches, filmed them, airing them on the local community channel gathering more attention than he ever wanted. The New York Times sent a reporter to journal a "most interesting law school campaign," garnering Dontae more votes, such that he was about to run away with the election because the Chinese San Franciscan complained she was being beaten to the ground.
Then something happened. His phone rang one early morning as Dontae was writing a brief for a Torts class due Monday morning, and after picking up the phone he heard the familiar voice of Michael's mother greet him nicely.
"Hi, auntie," he responded, wondering why she was calling, she never called, why the most she heard from her through the years was a Merry Christmas over the phone as the younger cousins had stopped going back to Ache-ron (as they referred to it now) for the holidays to avoid the ignorance, resentment and name calling cast against them as if they were criminals or junkies.
"Now, Dontae, don't get upset because I know how close you are to Michael, but he's in the hospital with the flu." Dontae felt a chill run through his lower back, though not because his beloved cousin was sick, but because he felt talked-down to, like one would do a little boy – or a little girl as in this case. The silence was black, black as night. Neither of the two wanted to talk, not the nephew, not the aunt. It was just the flu after all, you know, but bad enough so that Michael was interned, with hoses and things running through his body. Maybe he wore a catheter, who knows? He could pee in his pants, as it were.
"So?" said Dontae, like in, What's in it for me? But he heard more silence, if silence can be heard.
"Would you go visit, we're not able to get time off right just yet."
"Yes, sure, auntie, I would love to do so, particularly right now as I'm in the middle of an important election would make me President of the Student Body at Law School." He said this in the most sarcastic way he could, sounding, unfortunately, very feminine, very catty, and quite queenly. He didn't care. His family had abandoned him a few years back and only now was he getting over it. He did have his cousin after all, his family, and though small, a family is a family.
Hanging up the phone and leaving his writing for later, he looked up the hospital in Philly and called. He got a nurse.
"The patient can't talk right at the moment," she said more as an order. Nurse Ratchet for sure, bitch, he mumbled after hanging the phone with one quick index finger. He hopped on a train without either changing his clothes or calling his jealous boyfriend, why, not even thinking of him to be sure, and from the station he ordered a cab to take him to the hospital.
"Use your lead foot!" he sort of screamed, now intent on seeing his cousin healthy instead of wasted away by this "flu." He knew what this flu was. The cabdriver punched it, reaching the hospital in record time.
"You cannot see the patient until visiting hours."
"Is he OK, is he OK I mean."
"Are you a family member?"
"Oh, yes, we're cousins. Grew up together, honey, know each other's secrets."
"Are mom and dad expected?" She asked this in a low, almost secretive voice, which startled Dontae.
"Is something wrong, something you want to tell me?" He asked this in a voice loaded with worry. Had Michael died?
"Michael has pneumonia. PCP pneumonia."
The air was still. Although Dontae was brilliant and at the top of his class at The Law, there was still a lot he did not know in life. His focus was on graduating top of his class and not in social issues relating to life and death.
"What does this ‘PCP ‘mean?"
"Let me call the doctor, he'll explain." She walked away as if she'd seen a ghost.
Dontae, dressed in his black leather coat from Bergdorf Goodman, in jeans and warm scarf as Fall was now quickly turning into winter, smelled his armpits and sat on one of those ratty hospital chairs a million and two people have occupied, and clenched his hands.
A half-hour later and after wanting to smoke a cigarette which he never did before, a short, wiry-haired doctor with a big nose approached him.
"Michael has an infection in his lungs, a pneumocystis pneumonia or PCP, an AIDS related inflammation of the lungs. It's far along the way, ignored, basically, until now."
Now, the hushed voices of people whispering could faintly be heard from far away, the room was spinning, a child cried somewhere, it was a girl for sure, a wheelchair could be heard down the aisle, a cough, the lights were suddenly glaring, the phone rang and Dontae just about fainted had it not been for the cautious doctor who stood before him, knowing well his was a common reaction after hearing such bad news. Some family members outright fainted right before his eyes, some did not. Some cried silently as if respecting the hospital's quiet ambiance, others screamed for their lives, crying out to a God they had forgotten until now, their hour of need.
They say people fall asleep when they get really scared, or when they are possessed with the fear of dying, their hearts and minds clicking off like a light switch, which is just what happened to Dontae: he checked out. When he awoke to the sound of chuckling, a sound that came from the nurses' station, he realized it was visiting hours, and walked in to see his cousin.
"Mom and dad didn't have the guts to visit, huh?" Michael stated.
"It's not as bad as the doctor says, Dontae, don't worry." He coughed. It was a muzzled, phlegmy, smoker's cough that stuck in his throat, and Dontae could tell his lungs needed a good cleansing. He kept from even greeting Michael, though not for being rude but because he suddenly realized, "The person I most love in life is going to die."
"What can I do for you, cousin?" he asked, using the word of family and sounding false, but only because it hurt him now deep inside to call his cousin's name. He thought the world was about to crash down on him, what with being left alone to continue on in this big, bad, ugly world. All alone, could he handle it?
Michael reached out his hand looking much like the Michelangelo painting of the angels in heaven, like the fresco on the ceiling of the Basilica in Rome, Italy.
Dontae took his cousin's hand and began to cry. These would be eternal tears, much like the eternal flame that burns in honor of President Kennedy in Washington. It would be years later that the tears would stop, and only because Dontae was tired of feeling this way, tired of the hurt, tired of feeling lonely, and tired of never finding the cure for such a hurt as this.
"You didn't tell me you were sick," he muttered between tears. "We share everything."
"I thought I just had the flu. But it didn't go away."
You're gonna go away, thought Dontae, without actually saying it out loud.
The two looked at each other, Michael with a mask over his mouth, sounding like an echo with his every word, and Dontae with wet cheeks, not wanting to touch the tears for they might be real. They looked at each other that early evening like they had looked at each other the day Dontae decided to come out of the closet. It was the same look, not to be mistaken for another.
Dontae would never forget that look, and later, while asking the Dean of Students at the Law School for a leave of absence of a month to take care of his treasured cousin, he saw that look again in the Dean's eyes. How sorry he must feel to know my cousin will die at such a young age. He probably has children our age. The Dean gave him a go, and Dontae took advantage of it, packing a bag with his favorite shirts and ties, a couple of sports coats to look good while standing next to his cousin, so to feel as good as he could under the circumstances. He dropped out of the election at school, vowing to run next year for Editor of the Book Review, a more prestigious position than president of the student body, sending the San Franciscan girl a letter of congratulations, sealed with a red lipstick kiss.
The hour was getting late as Michael found it harder and harder to breathe, his lungs pumping up and down, his depleted flesh but a skeleton now, ribs showing as if in a science book, a short unshaven beard on his face, his eyes about to pop-out of his head. Never mind the pale look on his once bright dark African American skin. Michael was disappearing right before his cousin's eyes, and, not a sight of the aunts and uncles – the moms and dads as the two called them.
Michael died of cardiac arrest one lonely night when his cousin Dontae was asleep on he sofa beside him, law book in hand. Michael made no noise, nor did he rock the bed, he didn't even try to rip his mask off. When Dontae later woke to urinate, he saw his cousin asleep like an angel; his eyes shut as if wishing this were all a dream.
Dontae would return to Law School, excel under a pressure he did not believe was right for any human being to experience, earn a 3.8 grade point average, and move on in life, staying away from the drugs he felt like taking to smooth his life, the grind, and keeping from the alcohol that he never liked in the first place. The depression that took over was superseded by hard work, concentration, steel nerves and a faith in the Almighty that he'd never known.
Mother called notifying Dontae of Michael's funeral.
"I won't be there. I have final exams," he retorted, his voice angry for the loss of his best friend and cousin, resentment in his every word for the way his family had treated the younger cousins simply because they lived an alternative life, a life that they did not choose but instead, a yearning that chose them. Dontae looked in the mirror and said, I love you, Michael. Remember we did everything together: rest in peace, brother.
Mom hung up the phone and said, "The thought of it!"
His would be a survival story with a clean ending, a clean way out of the negritude of life as a homosexual, and a clean start in life - though with a broken heart torn to pieces.