A Little Respect

By John Jay Buol

 

In all our lives there will be, if we are lucky, one person whose essence brings us to the brink of exaltation: someone who gets so close to a silent part of us that they wind up drawing out that something from our being we didn’t know we owned. Discovering this, we struggle to understand what is happening. We reach for him or her and try to touch them in a way that might reflect how they have touched us.

I didn’t recognize that this was about to happen to me. As a senior in college, I thought I’d learned how to compose myself… until I met Alan.

He was one of a new crop of incredible freshmen, coming into my school’s theatre scene in the fall of ’93. As the year begins, the upperclassmen always size up the new recruits, checking to see who might be competition, who might be interesting to work with, who might be worth befriending. This was Los Angeles, and any one of us or them could turn out to be the “next big thing.” We all came here to be that thing, and these new freshmen seemed especially hungry. They approached us, inviting themselves into our world fearlessly, carrying with them experiences we didn’t have.

They were ’90’s teenagers, and we had been ’80’s teenagers, and though we were only three years apart, there seemed to be a noticeable mini generation gap. We had grown up somewhat sheltered by Reagan and scared by the AIDS crisis. They already knew all about drugs, sex, and politics. The Gulf war was the first war for both of us, but they had dealt with it as sixteen-year-olds. They were brand new, and already they were somehow smarter and sexier than we were. I, for one, didn’t like it. It made me uncomfortable and a little bit envious.

We had only been into the new semester one week when auditions were held for the fall’s main stage production of Spring Awakening. The play is about a group of teenagers in the Germany of the late nineteenth century who are discovering their sexuality in the midst of severe social oppression. There are a few parts for “adults”, but the fact that there were a larger number of roles for “children” meant that these sexy freshmen had a chance to steal the glory out from under the rest of us, we who already had three years of auditioning for these big-deal projects under our belts. Hundreds of people would see this production, and any of them could be important industry types who could begin to create futures for us.

As fate would have it, only three of us seniors got into the cast, and those that were not cast could not forgive the newcomers. Easily twice as many freshmen had snatched these plum roles. For at least a few weeks they were “frozen out” of our social gatherings. Those of us with roles were thankful, but also a bit spiteful, and we promised (to those who were not cast) to make the lives of the little ones as difficult as we could.

At the first “read through” the director decided to split us into groups, based on which characters would be interacting with one another in the piece. We were to spend twenty minutes sitting there, getting to know one another, without speaking and without moving our bodies. He suggested we explore our characters, and our relationships with the characters we might affect during those twenty minutes, through eye contact only.

My character, Otto, was something of a bully, and the clear objective seemed to be to focus on the “gay kid”, Ernst, who Alan was playing. Alan didn’t really come across as gay, except maybe for his large, heavy-lidded blue eyes and his physical inclination to seem like he was shrinking into himself. As soon as his gaze met mine, I saw a vulnerability that I could take advantage of. I began to visually recruit the other boys to help me intimidate him.

Alan noted at first that I wouldn’t let him out of the prison of my gaze, and he attempted to defend himself by looking away. There was nowhere to look, because the other boys had already realized what I was after. They were all gleefully participating, snickering at him soundlessly. Alan ultimately realized what was going on, and he was the first person in the room to vocalize: “Cut it out!”

The other groups turned their heads at the interruption. He looked at me directly after his quick outburst, with a certain disdain and a subtle shaking of his head. He knew I had decided to victimize him, and that I had sought the help and approbation of the others in order to achieve my aim. Bullies crave attention.

There was a scene in the play where all the boys, Otto, Ernst, and the rest, were called upon by their gang leader to engage in a “circle jerk.” I had personally never taken part in such an activity, and neither had most of the young cast—and if they had, they certainly weren’t going to admit it—so the director had to prudently explain exactly what a “circle jerk” was. We were all game, and we all played it out to perfection. The idea was for the group leader to throw a coin onto the ground in the center of the group, and the first boy to ejaculate upon the coin would be the “winner”. We were told not to take out our equipment, but there was plenty of rubbing and groaning, and quite a bit of squirming as well. It seemed the very nature of the play was forcing us to get to know one another in ways that seemed much more sticky than the typical “first week of rehearsal” introductions.

Perhaps because of this forced intimacy, conversations began to flow more quickly than usual, and flirtations emerged more easily. Maura, who was playing the mother of the lead boy, Frau Gabor, and who was also the “mother figure” in my circle of friends, finally invited a group of the younger boys over to have a drink with us at her apartment. I lived upstairs from her at the time, so my invitation was implied. She brought out the whisky and the pot, and the six or seven of us spent a few hours getting better acquainted, much to the initial chagrin of her boyfriend, Joe, who was one of the disgruntled seniors not cast in the production.

Joe eventually warmed up to the company, and Maura, who liked to bypass the pleasantries once the party favors had taken hold, initiated a game of truth or dare. Alan was asked at one point if he had ever kissed a man. He was playing the gay character in the piece, so we were all a bit curious as to his level of experience in the matter. I was particularly (though silently) interested because I was carrying the secret that I had. Maura and Joe knew about one of the men in question, but I had kept my mouth shut on the topic with everyone else.

Without blinking an eye, Alan said, “Oh yeah, I was into this guy for a while, back in New York. It didn’t work out. I guess I’m more into girls, but I’m not afraid of the kiss in the play, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Dude! What was it like?” one of the other freshmen gasped.

“Uh, nice, I guess. But not as soft as a girl.”

As risky as I had perceived his admission to be, no one else seemed to be the least bit discomforted or disturbed by Alan’s answer. Play went on to the next person, and we continued, poker-faced, as if nothing interesting had been said.

Rehearsals for Spring Awakening continued, and I began to take a keen interest in the amazing level of acting that was emerging in many of the scenes. Maura’s scenes were filled with such anger, fear, and passion, that I began to think maybe she and the man playing her husband were really in love. She and I would talk privately about how if it weren’t for Joe, she would truly allow herself to lose herself in this guy, Peter.

Alan, in the scene he had alone with Ernst’s love interest, Hanschen, was also remarkable. Watching them, I was astounded that these two boys, though their love was forbidden, somehow represented the moral center of the entire piece. While the rest of the teenagers were raping one another, pining over prostitutes, and contemplating suicide, these two spent time together on a hilltop speaking of their love and their hopes for the future. I was beginning to think that Alan was Ernst. On stage, he was straightforward and innocent, and so seemingly in love with the other boy. I knew it was all acting, but part of me fell in love with Ernst/Alan as I watched that scene, wishing, for a few seconds, that I could be his Hanschen.

His talent was undeniable, and I was compelled to take advantage. I decided, ultimately, to cast him in a short film I was assigned in one of my classes in the film school. He played a lost junkie dreamer, caught in the rain. As I studied the footage, I found myself letting him turn my soul inside out. I’m pretty sure my A in the course had something to do with my casting him.

After late nights spent editing that film on a tiny archaic manual film winder, and juggling Spring Awakening rehearsals and a full class schedule, I realized one day on my way to class, that I needed to take a fucking nap. Alan’s apartment was right next door to the building where I had my next class. I called him from a campus payphone, found him at home, and he was more than happy to offer his bunk while he ate lunch.

I arrived, exhausted. He introduced me to the small living room, then to the first bedroom, which he shared with another roommate. He led me into the room, turned off the light, and wishing me a good rest, he returned to his lunch and the TV. I smiled, so relieved that I could grab a few sweet moments of peace before having to face my next class. I fell asleep immediately.

I began to dream while lying in his bunk. In my dream, he wandered from The Simpsons’ Springfield reality, and he came to the bedroom. I heard the door creak open, and I recognized his silhouette. It seemed that he saw me seeing him, and he almost turned around. Instead, he shrugged off his cap and shirt and climbed into the bed. Then he quietly, shyly, asked me if he could lie down with me.

I turned without speaking, and he took me away. I fell into a net of panic/comfort. This felt real, it felt terrifying, it felt true. I embraced him without confusion or hesitation, as if giving in to the demands of an angel. He placed himself on top of me, carefully fixing his hips upon mine. I was more excited than surprised, and I seized his lips with my mouth. We silently began to compose our own symphony. The conversation my soul was aching to have with him suddenly manifested itself as a corporeal form of sign language.

I awoke, startled. He was no longer there. My mind began to wrestle with the realization that he had not been there next to me after all. I crawled out of the bed, searching for a clue which might lead to reality. My hands rose slowly to my eyes, and I attempted to rub them clean. Was I awake now? I bumped against the door frame and peered through the crack into the living room. There was Alan, still lying on his roughly hewn dorm couch, perusing the latest installment of The Simpsons as before.

“Al,” I began, “did you just come into the bedroom…?” I couldn’t even continue. It had seemed so real, but clearly it had not been.

“Nope. I’ve been watchin’ The Simpsons, he replied, simply.

 

I felt yellow disappointment pour through me. I was suddenly, unexpectedly, conflicted about telling him what I thought had happened. I turned my back to save myself and began to return to the bedroom. Somehow, I didn’t quite believe him. I turned around again.

“I thought I felt someone get into the bed with me.”

He cocked his head, raised his eyebrows, and after a strange silence, said, “Wasn’t me.”

I climbed back into the bed, but I couldn’t go back to sleep. I agonized over telling him about the dream. I knew he wouldn’t judge me. After all, he was the one who had revealed his inclination to be with men. It was the sheer power of the dream that was so unsettling to me. Suddenly I felt I was in love with him. I had been given this incredible vision of peace and passion folded into the same surreal moment, and I couldn’t keep it to myself. I decided to proceed with some caution.

I gathered my things, and as I was tying the laces of my Doc Martens, I opened a peephole to the flood gates. I was sitting in the chair facing Al’s couch. “So, yeah, I guess it was a dream, but I could have sworn you came into the bedroom and got in the bed.”

“That’s weird,” he began, “I mean, I really like you, Jay, but I can’t see myself doing that.” He considered this for a moment. “What happened after I got in the bed?”

“Well, we kind of made out, I guess.”

“Was it hot?”

I laughed and tried to hide my pink face, pulling my hat low. I wasn’t going to lie.

“Yeah.”

“Cool.” He nodded, smiled, and turned his gaze back to the TV.

“Alright… thanks for letting me crash. I gotta get to class.”

“Sure, Jay, anytime. See you at rehearsal.”

That was it. I guess it could have gone better, or much worse, but it was what it was. At least I wasn’t going to have to fret over whether or not to reveal myself any more.

As rehearsals resumed, I expected to be somehow closer to Alan, to fall into some sort of “confidant” position with him, after the layer of skin I had removed for him at his apartment. This did not happen. I would receive the requisite hug as a greeting, but mostly he would spend his time backstage teasing the freshmen girls, doing card tricks for them, and generally making them giggle and swoon. I had never really felt jealousy before, but it was clear to me that this green monster was creeping up on me.

After one particularly agonizing evening of feigned comfort with Alan at Maura’s, I could take his casual indifference no longer. I excused myself rather abruptly, and I marched upstairs to my own apartment. My roommate was gone. I was alone, considering how to handle this slow-burning anguish.

Quickly, I became aware that I was on the opposite end of a scenario which had played itself out uncomfortably years before. I had been the young object of affection, and my “suitors” (there had been two of them), like the present-tense me, had been at a loss to express their true feelings. Clearly, they hadn’t wanted to jeopardize our friendship, so they kept their desires in check. When they finally came out with their true feelings it was too late, too twisted up in jealousies and hurt, and it all ended in disaster. How to avoid this sad inevitability?

I pulled out a CD from that summer. It was the late 80s, and we had all been listening to Erasure’s The Innocents—a truly appropriate title for the soundtrack of that summer. “A Little Respect” poured out of the speakers: “I try to discover… a little something to make me sweeter… Oh baby, refrain… from breaking my heart.”

The lyrics hit me like a clue delivered by a boxing glove. It all came down to maintaining my respect for him, and for myself. I wasn’t ready, personally or socially, to embark on some kind of gay relationship, but I couldn’t deny my feelings. I didn’t have a plan or a particular design for the future, but if I didn’t do something, I knew I would regret it. “And if I should falter… would you open your arms out to me?” the song continued. It was worth a try. I began to compose a letter to him. If nothing else, he would have to appreciate the raw honesty.

I poured it all out in the letter. I told him about my lack of experience. I admitted to confusion about my feelings. I told him that I did not intend to scare him or “own” him. I went into further detail about the dream. I implored him to see the whole thing as simply a map of my current state of mind, and to understand that I didn’t necessarily expect any action in return. I wished I had Joni Mitchell looking over my shoulder, offering better words and lines.

I held onto the letter for almost a week. I kept it on my person always, for fear that someone else would come across it. It was the most personal and revealing thing I had ever written for someone else to read.

The opening night of the play came, and it was typical for the cast to exchange cards of appreciation, flowers, and good-luck hugs. It seemed like the perfect time to introduce the letter. I waited until I found Al by himself, backstage. He was ready, in costume, sporting a knit sweater and page-boy cap. I approached him. I hadn’t yet changed into my costume, so the written confession was waiting in the pocket of my jeans. I stared blankly for a moment. “Have a great show,” I said. I had lost my nerve. I returned to the dressing room to change, my perfect words still sleeping quietly in their little denim prison cell.

The show went brilliantly. The audience was large and appreciative. The reviews would be out in a few days, and we were confident we had delivered something compelling and provocative. Most of us gathered later at Maura’s, still our favorite watering hole, to celebrate. After a few cocktails, I found Alan alone in the kitchen mixing himself a drink. “Great work tonight,” I offered.

“You too,” he said.

I thrust the letter in front of him. “Read this later. It’s very personal. Please keep the contents to yourself.” He nodded, put it away quickly, and we returned to the party.

Now the really hard part began: the waiting.

Days went by with no calls, no words exchanged. We saw one another every night at the show, and he treated me just as before: polite nods, smiles, a pat on the back. Somehow, this was actually worse than before. He had all the cards. I was the anxious opponent, waiting for the first hand to be dealt.

I decided to confide in Maura after the third day.

“What were you thinking?” she exploded at me.

“I guess I wasn’t thinking. I was just feeling. I needed him to know….”

“Well, now you’re up shit creek. The fact that you put it down on paper, and didn’t say it to him directly, gives him all kinds of room to place his own assumptions all over it. Now there’s the element of time. It’s going to grow and change in his mind and become something bigger and weirder….”

“I didn’t think about that,” I admitted. My face was getting hot, and my mouth was suddenly dry.

“And how do you know he’s not going to show it to all his friends?”

“Has he shown it to you? Has he even said anything?”

“No, but I’m your best friend. He’s not going to approach me.”

“I just trust him somehow.”

“You barely know him,” she concluded.

“Great. Thanks for your support.” I sniffed. “Hey, what about your little secret desire to fuck Peter?”

“That’s what I’m saying. That’s something I’m going to keep to myself.” She was right. Maura, always the great pragmatist. I had let my “big old heart” block the sun and eclipse my brain.

Soon after, the closing night of the play was upon us, and the probability that we would stop seeing Al at the apartment grew greater. I still hadn’t heard any response to the letter, so in frustration, I called him that afternoon.

“Al!”

“Oh, Jay, hi. What’s up?”

I got right to the point. “Did you read my letter?”

He was silent for a few moments. Then he said, “Yes, I did.”

“And?”

“What do you want me to say?”

“I don’t know! Anything, everything… something!”

“Jay, I think you’re great. I really like hanging out with you and everyone. It’s just… I’m over that part of my life. I’m just not into guys anymore. It’s nothing against you. If I felt like some part of me was reacting to you in a sexual way, I would go for it. It’s just not there.”

“So you used to be bisexual, and now you’re straight.”

“Something like that. Yeah.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I guess before, I thought I might be gay. I wanted to try it out, you know, just to see. I’ve always been attracted to the point of view of the minority, any minority, and I ‘tried gay on’ for a while. It just didn’t turn out to be as cool as I thought it might be.”

“Well, that’s… pretty wild. I mean, I’ve never heard of anyone… I mean, you haven’t ‘tried it on’ with me.”

“I don’t need to, Jay. I know who I am. I want to be with women.”

All my breath left me for a minute. I had certainly given him a big, beating, bleeding muscle of a valentine, and he didn’t want that mess around.

“I gotcha. So… friends, then?” I feebly offered.

“Yeah, good. Let’s be friends. I’ll always be your friend. See you at the theater.”

I can’t say I was humiliated—scarred, yes. I felt a little broken, but at least now I could let it die. I swore to keep my distance from him, once the play was done.

Some time later, perhaps a month after the show ended, Alan was over at Maura’s again with some of the cast, including Steve, who had played Hanschen. Kind of ironic, I thought, that two straight guys would be cast as the beautiful gay couple, and the confused gay guy would play the bully. There were maybe twelve people in the apartment, mostly gathered around the television on various pieces of furniture. Alan was by himself on the floor next to Maura’s rocking chair. I was on the small sofa, wedged in between one arm of the sofa and Joe and Steve. We were all watching the MTV movie awards. None of us gave a damn who won what.

Maura was bringing out a fresh tray of drinks and artichoke dip during a commercial break, when suddenly Alan bolted to his feet and announced he was leaving. He crossed in front of the couch on his way out, and he stopped momentarily in front of me. He leaned down, placed one hand on the back of my neck, and kissed me on the lips. Then he stood up and marched out the door without another word.

All eyes turned toward me. Joe and Steve began to giggle a little. Maura’s jaw was on the floor. I was trying hard to disappear. My face colored, then my whole body was burning. I jumped up and out the door, and racing down the stairs, I caught Alan between the first and second floors.

“What the fuck was that?” I lashed out.

“Just a kiss.”

“After all this time? After ignoring me for weeks? In front of everyone? Joe and Steve and…”

“…and Maura and Dana and everyone. Yeah. I kissed you goodbye. You’re my friend.”

“I didn’t see you kissing your other friends goodbye!”

“I didn’t feel like kissing them.”

“Al…. You can’t do that. You can’t just kiss me. Are you trying to drive me insane? I felt really intensely about you, and you made it clear you didn’t feel the same. Don’t bring my head back into that place. I can’t waste my energy on you anymore.”

“Alright, I won’t kiss you.”

Silence, as we stared at one another.

“Thank you.”

More silence.

“I really want to be your friend, though. Let the kiss mean that: you are welcome in my world. Goodnight.” He was out the door.

I took him at his word, and we began to exist in the same world again, platonically but beautifully. We worked on more theatre projects together. We hung out at parties. We took advantage of that one year together in school and learned to enjoy and respect one another in many ways. I never had another dream about us, and there would never be another kiss between us. There would be hundreds of passionate kisses to follow, with many men and with a few women, and polite kisses with coworkers and aunts and grandmothers and nieces, but there would never be another kiss like that from anyone: so unexpected, so simple, so drenched in strange meaning.

That kiss, I think, challenged me to embrace a higher form of dignity. In that moment, though I might not have acknowledged it at the time, I was on the brink of exaltation.

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