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Authors: Ethan Mordden

Tags: #Fiction, #Gay, #Romance


BOOK: Buddies
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Title Page

Copyright Notice




On the Care and Training of Parents and Siblings


Confessions of a Theatregoer

The Ideal Couple

A Weekend with Straights

I Am the Sleuth

Uptown, Downtown

Kid Stuff

The Preppie and the Clone


Raw Recruits

Three Letters from South Dakota

The Hottest Man Alive

Sliding into Home

Also by Ethan Mordden




Chuck Ortleb


The author wishes to acknowledge the guidance and stimulation of his editor and friend, Michael Denneny, who has committed a substantial portion of his career to the nurturing of a literature for the age of Stonewall. Some years hence, when the chronicles are written, his entry in the indices will be rich.


The French tend to write about manners, the Germans about knowledge, the English about sex. Americans write about families, gay Americans particularly. The gay writer’s unique contribution to literature, the
of gathering self-awareness and coming out, is essentially a family novel; and our secondary invention, the New York camp-surreal romance, is notable for its desperate flight from the family, its attempt to reconstruct an existence without any relations but those we choose ourselves. Yet our family haunts us, like it or not, in allusions rapt and rueful. At times, all gay fiction, even (perhaps especially) porn, seems fascinated by father and brother figures, masked and idealized as passing strangers, companions, lovers.

The human need for romance, for erotic affection, is basic to storytelling. Most narrative art, from
The Sheik
Love’s Labours Lost,
celebrates it; and it is everywhere about us in our daily lives, in the touch of strolling couples, in scandals and wedding announcements in the newspapers, in acceptance speeches on awards nights. This is why the younger and less worldly gays are surprised when straights express irritation at the slightest public show of gay romance. Gays think there’s room for everyone; most straights are willing to make room for gays on the condition that gays pretend they don’t exist. Thanking one’s wife for support is a convention; thanking one’s male lover is a subversive act.

Yet, despite straights’ lack of comprehension and outright intolerance, gays inevitably comprehend straights, because, whatever our sexuality, we all grow up within the straight culture as participators. You can be homosexual from birth, but you can’t be gay unless you voluntarily enter the gay world, a culture all its own. Gays understand straights; but straights don’t understand gays any more than whites understand blacks or Christians understand Jews, however good their intentions. Gay is a unique minority: strictly elective. If, called to the colors, you resist, no one may ever know who you really are.

This may be why
The New York Times
is so fanatic about terming gays “homosexuals.” It’s like calling blacks “niggers,” calling Jews “kikes.” It demotes them, questions their right to a culture. But black and Jewish separateness is inevitable; visual, aural, historical. Gays don’t
to be gay. Denying their right to be is the act of a repressive father trying to herd errant sons back into the heritage, into the life’s roles assigned them: back into the family.

So if the gay and straight worlds touch, it is only in the experiential sensibility of gays. Yet the two share one important element, a need for friendship, for nonerotic affection: for buddies. It is an American obsession, from
Of Mice and Men
The Sting;
and American gay life, in what I believe is its most compelling iconoclasm, has bettered the straight world in combining romance and friendship. One’s lover is one’s buddy—and who knows if the father- or brother-lover is not meant as much to eroticize one’s only lifelong relationships as to soothe the less permanent relationships of one’s love life: to accommodate the fierce and the tender, rivalry and alliance, at once?

This book is about these unique friendships, mostly gay ones but also some straight ones and even a few between gays and straights. Here, too, are fathers and brothers and recountings of family legends, of men in their youth, when rivalry often develops more naturally than alliance. In an earlier story collection,
I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore,
I tried to show how gay life behaves; this time, I want to show how it feels, how it pursues its self-discovery. This book is different also on the technical level, structurally, for these are more pieces than stories, counting character studies, nostalgic recollections, and essayistic analyses as well as outright tales.

As before, my setting is New York, where gay has most thoroughly, most variously, come out. If the first will of Boston is work, the first will of San Francisco is sex, and the first will of Los Angeles is money, New York cannot choose. It needs all three at once, and so do my characters. But they need one other thing, perhaps above all: comradeship. I have known men whose need drove them to a multiplicity of sexual adventures with partners they knew as slightly as possible, and men who could communicate sexually only through a personal intensity. Men who would do anything but kiss, and men who did little else. Men who would Go With Anything and men who could only touch themselves. Yet all traveled the Circuit, treated the metropolis as their private lonely-hearts club. Sometimes I think they seek someone better than they are; sometimes I think no, they seek themselves. And sometimes the two searches are one. This is what makes our times interesting.

On the Care and Training of Parents and Siblings

An introduction to the whole, in which our boy propounds his rules for growing up and coming out.

My two younger brothers have driven up from Los Angeles to visit my folks in Sacramento; I call in from the metropolis, New York. Brother Andrew is on the phone, and in the background the dogs and Mother are barking. “No, you can’t make pizza!” she cries. “Get out of the refrigerator! Where did you find that revolting shirt? Your socks don’t match! Wash your hair! Who left these dishes in the sink? Don’t you
touch that cheese—I said you cannot make pizza! The kitchen is closed! And stop that belching; I’m not one of your contemporaries, you know!”

“Guess who hasn’t mellowed?” says Andrew.

Actually, she has. My dad, as a character in my childhood, was as peaceful as a Rodin, ensconced in his chair, dreaming deep in a book (whereupon we kids would hit him for advances on our allowance—by my fourteenth birthday I was overdrawn through 1997). But Mother was a series of interrogations, moralistic harangues, and grouchings. She would even attempt making corporal correction upon us (we would simply head for the dining room and run around the table until she wore out or caught my littlest brother Tony). Two less alike parents there never were. Yet they agreed on the basics: love them, give them culture, and treat them for life as if they were permanently stuck at the age of eight.

Parents are tyrants, even the nice ones. I recommend taking the offensive as surely and early as possible, never letting up—and my system works, for I had a reasonably cute childhood, an amusing adolescence, and a profitable teenage career. My oldest brother Ned, a vaguely Fitzgeraldian figure, made a stab at defining a code for us kids, but it wasn’t a
code. It reflected too much, stuttered, yearned. A code should confront. Ned was more afraid of taking power than of suffering engulfment. Through trial and error, I trimmed his romantically elaborated novel of wistful resistance into a terse handbook whose name was

Rule One:
Don’t try to love Them; just get along with Them. Love in families only makes for ghastly scenes that will haunt you for life.

Rule Two:
Obeying Their rules only encourages Them to create new ones.
bey as often as possible: for gain, for sport, for the art of it.

Pursue the rebellion by being perversely nonconformist in all things—try, in fact, to act as if you’re committing an enormity even when what you are doing is technically permissible. For instance, on the day report cards come out, you—having achieved straight A’s—arrive home with your face alternating looks of shame and dread. They will pounce on your card, gloating and drooling as they dream up new and terrible punishments. Then They’ll see the honorable grades, perhaps Teacher’s enthusiastic commentary (“… though he does insist on organizing chic brunches during blanket hour”), and They’ll begin to blush, stutter, babble. Don’t grin at Them, revealing the art of the stunt: look innocent and ever so slightly wounded. They’ll avoid you in fear for days.

More quotidian possibilities include eating corn on the cob with a fork (the kernels come off in sedate little rows, which for some reason exasperates all the males at the table) and developing ersatz but noisy phobias about bridges, escalators, and religious activities of any kind.

Rule Three:
Never lie. Childlike honesty throws Them completely off. Moreover, as parents are virtually made of lies (e.g., “Don’t be afraid of bullies; stand up to Them and they’ll run away,” “If you stop crying and wait till we get home, I’ll make you an apple pancake,” “We have no favorites; we love you all equally”), your speaking truth undermines Their ethical position. Furthermore, lying is a sophisticated art generally beyond even the most gifted youngster. Almost any effort is doomed. And, remember: your failure is Their success. It is essential to avoid any error that will invigorate Their sense of power, and Their joy in that power. The sight of a small boy pathetically trying to worm his way out of a spanking enchants Them even more than administering the spanking itself. If you must be spanked, despoil it of all savor. Be cold and adult about it, like George Will at the dentist. Or try to look embarrassed for Them, as if you had spotted Them committing some atrocious peccadillo in a secret spot. Advanced students may want to Do the Manly Thing and insist on taking it bare-bottom. With all but the most diehard parents, this will force Them to retreat, perhaps even apologize.

Rule Four:
Abjure reason and justice; only strength counts. As the tenant of a house owned by grown-ups, you are not the inhabitant of a moral universe: you live in a world populated exclusively by winners and losers. Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.

Rule Five:
Choose the major battles very carefully. Go to the mat over bedtime, food, and presents, major issues that will color your existence for nearly two decades. Don’t overextend yourself fighting over the small things—and of course it’s useful every so often to give in and let Them think They’re in charge.

This was where Ned went wrong. He let Mother set policy on such vital issues as whether or not he would stay up late on Saturday nights to watch
The Gale Storm Show,
or precisely what comprised an acceptable vegetable plate, but would fall into a Gatsbyian gloom over the shade of brown in his new shoes. Romanticism is impedient in childhood; it turns one inward, toward poetry perhaps but away from power.

One must be Nietzschean. One must exercise power to gain power; and be prepared for violence. Isn’t liberty worth it? True, I blush now when we all get together for viewings of our ancient home movies, when reel after reel reveals tantrums and riot: devastated birthday parties wherein I smash boxes of insulting gifts to the keening of wounded aunts; peaceful afternoons in the backyard worried by the sight of some crazed adult chasing me through the trees after a revolutionary act; festive recreation around some neighbor’s pool suddenly humiliated as I push deck chairs, a chaise longue, and the local poodle into the water because the hosts were serving an inferior brand of candy bar. So: there is no glamour in power. Yet it is worth taking; one ought to win; the winner lives.

BOOK: Buddies
6.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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