Losing My Religion

by John Jay Buol

 

They dance in the bonfire light at the party. It is dusk now in the plaza square formed by the California bungalows built just north of campus. Brett’s hands hover about Amy’s lithe body, outlining her shifting curves as though his palms were sensors trained upon her form. He is behind her, surrounding her with his energy, yet not quite touching her, as though he were playing a Theremin. Her snow-colored curls bounce off his rough chin, echoing the movements of her ass near his crotch in a whore’s seductive tango. But she’s so far from a whore, and he is so far from actually seducing her.

The whole routine is merely a show for us all, yet I am somehow still seething with jealousy. What makes it worse for me is the song they are cavorting to:  “Losing My Religion” by REM, Michael Stipe’s words feeling as though they are leaking from my red eyes.

“That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight.”

I have still-sore memories of listening to the tracks from the CD with Amy in her perfectly sterile—like a soft hospital corridor—apartment, while trying to convince her with my clumsy wrists and my passionate pleas to remove her pants. I remember: she stopped me, pushed my hands behind my back, and said, “Jay, you can never love me like Jesus does.”

I rocked back, like He might have done in the temple, just before overturning tables, and I replied, “Maybe you don’t know Jesus as well as you think you do.”

She promptly asked me to leave.

I storm away from their display in the plaza, and my friend Nick sees me escaping and catches up to me.

“Why are you so… ‘so’?” Nick asks, a half a block from the party.

“I just don’t get it: Brett and Amy?”

“Jay, they’re in a show together. You know how it gets when you spend so much time with someone.”

“Well, they’re certainly putting on a show right now. Brett isn’t even into women. Am I right?”

“That’s none of your fucking business.” Nick’s face turns into something like granite as he looks away. I couldn’t have broken the surface with a pickax.

“What do you mean?”

“Brett’s business is his fucking business.” Nick sounds like his North Carolinian uncle must sound, talking to his nephew. “Leave it alone. You’re pissed because Amy won’t fuck you. That has nothing to do with Brett.”

I quit my stride for a moment. Nick stops with me.

I’ve had two too many beers, so I say it: “You think I don’t know that you and Brett—”

“Once again, none of your fucking business. Where do you live? I’m walking you home.”

Nick, though he is from the warm south, possesses the demeanor of a glacier’s shadow. His steely-cool presence is a slow-to-approach but inevitable warning of the coming frost. You can’t help but think of him, even when he isn’t present, because you know you have to watch out for him.

He is nothing less than the best damn actor in our class, and anyone who saw him in The Illusion knows it.

It was last semester. He played a supporting character who doesn’t speak in the first half of the play. A lesser performer would have accepted his quiet, “small” role in the story and faded into the background. Nick, though, realized there was a moment in Act II where his ages-old character finally gets to speak, after holding his tongue in terrible anxious frustration for centuries (and all of Act I). When he did open his mouth, it was such an explosion of emotion that the entire audience forgot about the main story line. Suddenly the entire piece was about him. I think I cried after his first few lines. He completely embodied the furiously broken persona of the un-sung soul. He played an individual who, forsaking his position in society, dared to say exactly what he had been forbidden to say for centuries. Hallelujah.

I’m just not appreciating what he has to say right now.

“Nick, I’m sorry, but I’m going back there, and I’m gonna—”

“You’re going to make a fucking scene, you’re going to embarrass Brett, embarrass Amy, and most of all embarrass yourself.” He makes it clear with his repetition and enunciation that I am an eight-year-old.

I search for some hint of mirth in his expression. Nope, still stone. I’m being scolded, and I haven’t done anything yet.

“Fine. Take me home. I live around the corner, two blocks down.”

“Same building as Maura and Dana?”

“Yeah, they live down the hall.”

“Say ‘hi’ to the ladies for me.” He finally smiles as I dig for my keys and shove myself through double doors into the lobby. I look back. He’s waiting still, surely to make sure I don’t turn around and ruin everything. I toss a defeated wave his way and hit the stairs.

I understand why he had to escort me home. If I had said what I wanted to say at the party, his cover would have been blown. It’s a fairly well kept secret in the theatre department that he and Brett are enjoying an off-and-on, semi-tumultuous love affair. I could care less. Just leave that mess out of my affairs. Amy wasn’t having me, that much was clear, but I wasn’t about to watch her stupidly get lost in the middle of a bisexual love triangle.

“Oh no, I’ve said too much. I set it up.”

Amy is an Opera student. She comes from Arizona, where the sky is clean, the earth is clean. She is clean. I think she’s a virgin, plus her skin is the texture of a lily petal, and her eyes are panes of frozen blue. Her father is a preacher, and after going through a rock and roll phase in high school, she chose to be “born again.” She must have been attracted to my innocence, and I was almost clean, having just slept with one (sort-of almost two) girls during the first summer vacation from college. We recognized the curiosity and temptation behind one another’s façades of purity and made a go of it for a few weeks. Until she remembered Jesus.

Still, she and Nick are in my acting class, so I see them both the following Monday afternoon. I can’t even get a glance from her. She must have seen my fists clenched as I left the party Saturday. I can tell that Nick is monitoring my anxiety as we pretend to appreciate our classmates acting out that scene from The Children’s Hour. They finish, and the professor has to remind them that the characters are lesbians. Amy says something about how that could be a matter of interpretation. Nick says, “No. That’s what the play is about.”

I think he is inspired by everyone’s ignorance, because he approaches me after class and suggests we do a scene from Bent: the famous scene where the two prisoners at the Nazi camp have sex without touching while standing at attention by the rock piles. I’m flattered he wants to work with me, and nervous as hell, but ready to show the rest of these fools how to take some fucking chances. I’ve played a gay guy before, but never a gay guy in a sex scene. The professor is excited by the idea, and Amy will get to see just what she’s missing. She won’t have a choice.

“Consider this a slip that brought me to my knees.”

According to his instructions, I’m to meet Nick at his apartment on Wednesday with the lines memorized. Usually, I wouldn’t approach a first rehearsal already off book, but he says he has an “experiment” in mind for the rehearsal that we can’t do with scripts in our hands, so I memorize.

When I arrive, he opens the door with a smile—the first one I’ve seen on his face this week. His smile is sweet, and it hints of mischief. “So what’s this little ‘experiment’ of yours?” I ask.

“Well, I’m guessing you’ve never had the experience of actually being intimate with another guy.”

I try not to give myself away: “I guess you’re correct in that assumption. What, you want us to actually have sex?” I’m already thinking of backing out of this scene. I’m willing to do some crazy things for the sake of art, but this is getting a little too “method” for me.

Nick laughs. “No, we’re not going to have sex. What, did you think I asked you over here just to get in your pants?”

My character in the scene, Max, is so ashamed of his homosexuality that he trades his pink triangle badge for a gold Jewish star in order to receive “better” treatment from the Nazis in the prison camp. In the scene, the other character, who wears the triangle, seduces Max while they take a break from moving heavy rocks from one pile to another. Max is attracted to him but scared to admit it. I wouldn’t put it past Nick to use the dynamic between the characters as an excuse to attempt to take me. “So, what are we doing, then?”

“I don’t know how you work, but personally, I need some kind of sense-memory to call upon during a scene that is so much about our imaginations, and I figured it would help us both to know what it would feel like to actually be close and touching each other. I figured we could try the scene a couple of times, allowing ourselves to feel one another, so that when we can’t, we’ll have the memory of the experience to use.” What he says is making sense, but it feels like one step further than I’m ready to take.

“I’m leaving my clothes on.” I say.

“Fine. Then I will too,” he agrees, “now lie down here, next to me.” He sprawls out on his back on the floor of his bedroom, hands clasped behind his head. He’s an attractive guy: tight dancer’s body, tanned skin, that devious smile again.

“What if all these fantasies come flailing around?”

I take a spot on the floor about a foot away from him.

He starts the dialogue: “I can feel you right now next to me. Can you feel me?”

Me: “No.”

He: “No one can hear us. Come on. Don’t be afraid. Can you feel me?”

Me: “Maybe.”

He: “Feel me”. He turns to me and places a hand on my cheek, tenderly. He moves his hand to touch my hand. I’m incredibly nervous. I fear that he is feeling my heartbeat pounding through the capillaries of my fingers. “I’m touching you.”

Me: “It’s burning.” I grab his wrist and then let my palm slide up to meet his.

He: “I’m kissing you.” He slowly brings his face closer to mine. I feel his hot breath.

Me: “Burning.” It’s true: I am burning. I don’t have to act. Maybe this was a good idea. He kisses me, and I feel it like Max feels it. I’m captured.

The scene goes on in this fashion, getting hotter and scarier—they are under the burning sun in a wide open space, beneath the eyes of the Nazi guards. What they are doing can get them killed, but they feel they need this connection to survive, and the secrecy makes the act all the more sexy and powerful. Eventually, Nick is on top of me, kissing his way down my chest, hands touching my neck, my hair, our bodies moving together as though we were naked. It’s hot in his room, and we’re both covered with sweat and aroused by the end of the first run-through, but as the scene ends I bolt to my feet, trying to be the consummate professional.

“Okay! That was intense. Can I get a glass of water?”

Nick jumps to my request and charges past me to the kitchen. I’m trying to rearrange myself so my erection isn’t too obvious. He returns with ice water for two.

He looks a bit concerned. “Are you okay?” he asks.

“Oh yeah, just kind of overwhelmed. This is all new for me, you know.”

“Yeah,” he laughs, “I know. That’s why I thought you should, you know, feel what it’s really like.”

“Do you mind if we don’t do it again?” I don’t think I can handle another round of prison-camp dry humping. It’s much hotter than I thought it would be, and much too hot in the room as well. Instead, we go outside and run through the scene again in the courtyard of the apartments, standing ten feet away from one another, careful not to speak too loud so the other residents living in the floors above—our pretend-Nazis—won’t hear us.

His little experiment works. We only need one time rehearsing in the open for it to feel as strong as it did in his room. I’m imagining the reactions our classmates will have. I’m hoping we leave them completely speechless. Nick gives me a hug and a playful kiss on the cheek. I grab my bag, and I’m on my way back home.

I’m still a little shaken. I want to tell someone about this. I want to run it by Maura and Dana, who know Nick well enough to determine if this was a ploy to seduce me, or just a brilliant acting exercise. I can’t though. It would just be too embarrassing if it was a cheap play for me, mostly because I fell for it and also because I can’t stop thinking about it. His touch was so much different from anything I’ve felt before. Is it because he’s a man, or is it just that he’s Nick? I’ve got to get it out of my head. I tell myself I’ve got to let it live as a part of an artistic process, nothing more.

“That was just a dream. That’s me in the corner.”

We meet a few hours before the next class to run through it again (not touching). It still feels the same. We’re ready. We boldly step up to be the first scene of the day, and I discover that knowing the eyes of eighteen students and two professors are watching our every moment makes me even more uncomfortable. The class is utterly silent, during and after. Our professors applaud our audacity and our excellent focus. They declare it a success. We aren’t asked to change or improve a thing.

After class, Amy comes up to me in the parking lot outside the studio and hugs me. “That was so incredible. You guys are so brave. Great work.” I thank her. I catch Nick’s eye. He winks, knowing I’m feeling somewhat vindicated.

He and I decide to walk over to my building to see if Maura and Dana are home. We pick up a bottle of Jack Daniels from his place on the way. There’s something weird in the air as we cross campus. People are moving faster than usual, no one is hanging out on the lawn, and there is an increased security presence. “I think the Rodney King cop verdict was supposed to be announced today,” Nick says. It’s Los Angeles, April 29th 1992, and our little world is about to change dramatically.

“Life is bigger, it’s bigger than you, and you are not me.”

When we enter the apartment, Maura is busying herself attending to a huge pot of homemade spaghetti sauce, and Dana is curled on her futon in front of the television set.

“Pour that bourbon!” Maura implores a bit nervously upon seeing us, as she pulls a bottle of Coke from the fridge as a mixer.

“What the hell’s going on?” I ask. I already know the answer. None of us expected the verdict would turn out this way, and the fact that it has smacks of the insidious racism inherent in the Los Angeles legal system. We are appalled and shocked, not to mention scared.

Nick grabs glasses from Maura and pours us cocktails as I cautiously approach Dana, who is curled into a near-fetal position. She waves me away from the futon. She is on the cordless phone, relentlessly attempting to call everyone she knows to warn them/ask for advice/share the information we’re receiving.

The local news’s coverage is astounding. They are showing a chaotic spark of African Americans around the intersection of Florence and Normandy streets, about twenty-five blocks south of us. As Maura and Nick return to the common area in front of the TV, we catch live footage of a white truck driver (later identified as Reginald Denny) attempting to pass through the intersection, stopping because of the girth of the crowd, and being pulled from the cab of his truck and beaten senseless by the mob on the street, as though it were some kind of “justice” for the King verdict: the white cops being declared innocent after clearly mistreating a black citizen. Ultimately, a black man (later identified as Bobby Green Jr.) rescues him, lifts him back into the cab of the truck, and somehow makes some kind of peace with the mob so they’ll let him through to drive the man to safety.

We can’t tell if the media is merely showing us the moment-to-moment, or somehow “creating” the moment-to-moment, by choosing to focus on the most salacious images. We can hear dozens of helicopters taking to the air above us, and we already see black smoke rising from the southern horizon as the sun sets. We all begin to think, what if that were me, driving though that neighborhood? Could I be beaten to death just because I’m white?

Maura’s boyfriend, Joe, bursts into the space. “Just came from the Student Center: no finals. We’re all getting A’s. They want us to get out of here.”

“Get out of here to where?” asks Maura.

“They’re opening the fitness center as a safe space for people who can’t leave campus, but there’s only enough room for the folks without a place to go. They want everyone who has somewhere to go to go there. There are rumors of break-ins and violence at some of the campus apartments. My dad called from Philly. He says my uncle might be able to put us up in the Valley.”

“Wait!” Dana interjects. “My dad has this business condo in Santa Monica that I think is vacant. He said I could crash there.”

“Can we join you?” I ask

“Fuuuuck!” She’s frustrated. “I don’t know how much room he has there. I have to call him, but the lines are down. I can’t get through right now.”

My mind is racing with unsaid concerns: Is it racist for us white kids to just abandon the neighborhood because we’re scared, instead of trying to help fix things? Is it wrong for me to ask to be included in this “escape plan” when I could just as well crash at the fitness center? Would it be safe to try and wait it out in my own apartment? What are my black friends thinking about all this?

Eventually, as the outrage builds, the local news begins to display a grid of the neighborhood on the screen, highlighting the occurrences of violence and destruction, block by block, in red. The red blocks are moving north, toward us, at the rate of one block every half hour, as though the “destruction mob” has mobilized and is collectively seeking out new blocks to demolish. The local news is handing us the information video-game style.

I, personally, can’t believe the city is in such horrible social disrepair. I remember going to the Baldwin Hills mall to buy Play-Doh a few weeks after school began freshman year. It was “all good” then. I suggest we try to wait it out in the apartments tonight, and if the violence continues when we wake up, we take off. Nick excuses himself to sprint across campus and pack a personal bag for the journey, and I take off down the hall to do the same. Dana, in a lovely act of generosity, tells us both that if her father contacts her and suggests that we move to his condo in Santa Monica, if there is enough space, we will be the last two “residents” chosen, along with Maura and Joe.

At 7:00 a.m. I dress and race down the hall to Maura and Dana’s place. I knock; Dana answers. She returns to her position in front of the TV. Mayor Tom Bradley has just declared a “City Emergency,” and California Governor Pete Wilson has called in the National Guard. The red squares on the TV are now two blocks from us. Campus security is urging us to evacuate.

Joe races with Maura’s keys to bring her car around from campus parking, and Dana, Nick, Maura, and I collect our things and jump into the Toyota with the huge pot of spaghetti sauce and the bottle of Jack Daniels.

We arrive at the condo, and it appears to be a perfectly comfortable haven, just far enough away from the chaos to rest and wait out the tragedy. We have suddenly become like the characters in The Illusion, gathered in our cave, witnessing the drama playing out on the sorcerer’s screen. I also feel a little like Anne Frank, hidden from the world, hoping the hell outside will pass and that life can one day go on as it did before.

The first few days we spend sleeping and monitoring the progress of the violence via the TV screen. For awhile, it seems that the uprising has reached as far north as Wilshire Blvd., and it is quickly spreading west, toward us. All we know is that it is best to stay inside, so we entertain ourselves with simple card games and speculation. The drama of Amy and Brett is so far away now, suddenly a part of the past. We are aware that we are not able to buy more food, so we “ration” the spaghetti sauce. Someone has brought a pocketful of good weed, so we ration that as well, to avoid the munchies.

On day four, Joe proposes that we head back to campus to check out the situation and look for the rest of the weed he left in Maura and Dana’s apartment. “Don’t you want to see with your own eyes what the fuck is really going on?” As scared as we are, we recognize the downtown neighborhood as “our turf too” and decide we owe it to ourselves to take a look.

Joe drives, and Nick and I ride with him, and what we see makes us understand why we’ve been sequestered these past few days. The already smog-filled air now presents an eerie, hellish fog, slightly blocking our approach, and as we reach the freeway exit to return to campus we pass not one, but three overturned automobiles which are still on fire. We speed through a number of red lights because we are being approached by people on the sidewalk, some with pipes or other pieces of metal in their hands, who want to break us. On most intersections, there are armed military men looking nervous. For a day or two, we had joked about how ridiculous it was that we were “hiding out” in Santa Monica during the civil unrest. Now we understand. These folks are extremely pissed off, and it doesn’t really matter who we are. To them, our skin color or the car we’re driving reads as “the establishment.”

We find the weed; we rush back to the beach. What else can we do? The curfew continues for another night, then another.

Finally, on the sixth night, midnight comes, and Dana is asleep on the living room couch. Maura and Joe are passed out in their room. Nick whispers to me, “What if we fuck this curfew and jump over the balcony fence? We can go down to the beach and enjoy ourselves.” He’s clearly sick of playing the victim and wants me to help him turn this into an adventure. I’m game.

I suggest we take a hit from the bong and do a shot from the Jack bottle first. We do both, and stealthily we tiptoe out, slide the glass door to the balcony open so quietly, and jump down three feet to the soft sand beneath. Immediately, we smell the city burning, mixed with the salt air.

The rush of freedom is so intoxicating that it only takes me half a minute with my ankles submerged in the surf to strip off all my clothes, save my underwear. Nick seems pleasantly surprised and follows suit. “You look good, naked in the water, in the moonlight,” he says.

I laugh, look him straight in the eye, and reply, “You too.” Something about our time this week has led me to trust him. I’ve been wondering, if he’s gay, what makes me so different? I’ve fantasized about men; I’ve just never thought I’d actually have the nerve to touch another guy. Well, thanks to acting class, I’ve crossed that hurdle. But that wasn’t “real,” right?

We are the only people inhabiting the Santa Monica beach in this moment. After five days of internment, we have freed ourselves in a small way. We dance and laugh and circle and splash one another carelessly for thirty minutes, then realize that we are beholden to Dana. It would be wrong for us to scare them all by disappearing so.

We sneak back into the apartment like silent ninjas, except for the random stoned giggle and the lack of throwing stars. Encountering a still-snoozing Dana and a closed door leading to Maura and Joe’s room, we ascend.

We are covered in sand. Luckily, the bedroom I share with Nick has its own bathroom attached, and, carefully trying to avoid dripping sand on the carpet, we edge our way to “our” bedroom and close the door. Without a word, Nick begins to run the bath. He throws his clothes off in front of me as though I have seen it all before, and he climbs into the water at the end of the bathtub, facing me. He leaves plenty of room for me to join him.

I want to wash off the sand as well, and I’m considering sitting next to him, but I’m not ready to be with him in the bath. Luckily, there is a shower stall next to the bathtub, directly at his back. I drop my wet underwear and walk past him to enter it.

“Losing my religion, trying to keep up with you, and I don’t know if I can do it.”

Maybe I’m a bit drunk. Maybe I’m a bit high. I’m covered in soap suds, peering through the glass at Nick’s naked body in the bathtub next to me. I’m alternately impressed and disappointed that he doesn’t turn around to view my bare, showering body at his back. In fact, I’m astounded. I really thought, especially after his “seduction maneuver” with the scene from Bent, that he would have liked nothing more than to devour me. Yet he remains still, facing away from me, seemingly at peace, enjoying the warm bathwater with his eyes closed. It’s that otherworldly calm that inspires me to move.

Frustrated, I turn off the shower tap and submerge my own body, opposite his, in the bath. He’s surprised at my gesture, and after a minute of considering his options, he offers merely to scrub my back if I turn around. Could he make it any more difficult for me to come out of this closet? Obviously, I want him. I discern that he wants me to own that desire.

We retire, in waist-tied towels, to the adjacent bedroom. He invites me to join him on his bed, so he can “re-learn me” how to play Gin Rummy. We play for a few minutes, get bored, and he suggests I lay down on his bed so he can administer a back massage. Now, I think, we’re getting somewhere.

He begins to sculpt and melt my flesh with his magic hands, and within a minute and a half I flip over, grab his hips, and pull him toward me. Without the actual knowledge of it, we pretend that the unrelenting Rodney King verdict-inspired violence has come to an end. It’s as though we’ve made it through our little twentieth century Armageddon. Who gets hurt if a couple of intelligent boys decide to celebrate by sharing some sweat and saliva?

As our lips meet, I am reminded of the rehearsal for Bent. But this is different: this is my choice. This is not for art’s sake. This is for our sakes. We have only towels as barriers between us, but our kisses evolve into a mad, sweat-soaked wrestling match, and the towels might as well be made of paper. They dissolve away, and we match passions, throwing body over body, into and over the folds of the sheets.

The scent of him lifts me to a place I never expected: sage, sandalwood, pine, and raspberry, loose earth and olive oil. It’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted/smelled/touched. I can’t get enough, and what’s more, the physical give and take is overwhelming. I never expected to feel someone responding so completely and fully to my every move. I can’t even turn an inch without experiencing an equal-or-more reaction. It’s as though I am physically fighting to express myself, yet it is rewarded with equal expression.

Before, with the women I’d touched, I recognized that it was my duty to be the initiator, the “dominator.” Now the lines are blurred, and I find pleasure in having no specific role to play out. If there is a “contest” involved, I am suddenly confident that we will both emerge victorious, because we will thrive on the energies we have shared. When we come, it will be the result of our collective lack of judgment and expectation. We are merely thrilled by the act of physically confronting one another. I thrust, and he reacts, lifting me just far enough to make a difference. We spend the hours learning one another’s boundaries and pushing those boundaries. We are naked, we are free, we understand the value of sweat-on-sweat, lips-on-lips, breath-on-breath.

“Every whisper, every waking hour, I’m choosing my confession.”

When morning comes, the smoke on the horizon is already clearing. The sound of the ’copters has waned. Nick is awake and having coffee on the balcony with the others. I can’t find my clothes, so I wrap a white sheet around myself and peer out into the sunlight, smiling at them all silently. Joe offers me a coffee, and I join them. There is a new, unexpected feeling of comfort and safety in the air. No one mentions hearing anything unusual last night.  Nick and I act as if nothing happened, but we share a new secret smile.

I am later told by Maura that looking back on that moment, seeing me wrapped in the sheet, she knew that something had changed in me: “Like a layer of something had been removed.” I think it was the layer of protection I had worn up until that day. I had been afraid of many things, and most of all, it seemed, of myself. Now I had found the power to discover myself more fully: to look unflinchingly at the pieces of myself I had previously kept in shadow. Funny how it took living through the feeling that the world was literally collapsing and burning around us for me to be willing to shed that silky cocoon.

The city-wide curfew was lifted that day, and we returned to our apartments. Nick separated himself from the University, transferring to a school in North Carolina. I didn’t hear about it until weeks after he left. It was both convenient and unfortunate that we would not convene to recollect the experience. Who knows what might have happened between us if he had remained in LA?

Henceforth, better understanding who I was and who I could truly be, I would take no prisoners, and I would cease to imprison myself.

As for the Rodney King uprising: the statistics speak for themselves. Over fifty people died. Over two thousand people were injured. Over one billion dollars of property damage was incurred. The city learned many lessons, and the police involved in the initial beating were retried in a civil case. Ultimately they were all dropped from the force. We all eventually went back to business as usual, putting our fears of otherness aside. At least one of us also began putting fears of his own “otherness” aside.

©  John Jay Buol.  All rights reserved.

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