by Jack Cooper
/ Nonfiction /
The chronological sorting of memories is an interesting challenge. My time then is distant and blurry, except my time with him. Although, we had so many happy days that they sometimes merge into a sweet and indistinct blur. But that may be how I want to remember those days. My thoughts of him may be idealized due, in part, to the intense feelings and emotions we had for one another. I felt that it was all going to come together – my future, my past, the whole of my life. I might have had any number of ways to speak about him, but this is the only way I will ever do so.
We were an odd mix, I suppose. Just a neighborhood group of friends that would gather almost daily. Usually within the same several city blocks, occupying one street corner or another. Mature trees everywhere. Entirely residential. Cornhill. That was our neighborhood and the limits to our roaming. It would all change when, one by one, we began driving. We were throwbacks from Theodore Roosevelt School, K-8. We all lived within several blocks of the school and had attended it for most of our years. Although we had moved on to one of six high schools in the city, three public and three Catholic, we still gathered as a group to share the daily snippets that made up our teenage lives. There was Robertello and Gail, both practical and proper, yet always smiling. Naomi, Frankie D, Janet, and Chucky. Also, Maggie, gentle as ever, yet upbeat and funny. Timmy O’ and usually one or more of the Ryan siblings, and Ned. David and Jim, the two intense personalities of the group. Jim, ever the loyal friend. Susan, Julia, and Regina. Others would come and go. There was certainly no formality to our gathering. And of course, Carol. Sweet Carol.
Carol was shy, so much so, that I found her endearing. She was gentle and kind. A petite little thing with long chestnut hair, brown eyes, and lovely lashes. I would walk her home, glad to be in the company of someone so pleasant and cheerful, before having to make my way to the erratic sanctuary that was my home. I looked forward to spending time anywhere and with anyone before having to head home, a journey that I seldom looked forward to. Carol presented a peaceful and calm friendship. It was what I needed before arriving at my home where peace and calm was seldom had.
One early Spring day, just after my sixteenth birthday, while walking Carol home, she invited me in to meet her family. I thought it strange as I didn’t see the necessity for these introductions. Since going home was my only alternative, I agreed.
Her home was a gray, two-story, wood-frame that was typical of the neighborhood. The street was lined with mature oaks, tall maples, and a majestic chestnut here and there. All the branches still bare from the winter. Streetlights and utility poles, all tied together by power lines. The front porch with its tall white columns was the width of the house. On the second floor, sitting atop the porch was a sunroom that looked out onto the street and walkway. We climbed the porch stairs to the unlocked door and as she went in, I followed close behind.
The foyer, dimly lit, presented a heavy oak, pocket door leading into a living room with a single table lamp dressed in a silk rose lampshade with swaying fringe. The rooms were saturated in heavy oak trim. Ivory walls adorned with gloomy black & white framed pictures. It oozed warmth and comfort and age. A worn, wool carpet lay on the oak hardwood floor and vintage furnishings filled the room. A large crucifix hung on one wall just above a table cluttered with various religious artifacts and palms from the Sunday before. Immediately in front of us was an oak staircase with a carpeted runner. The smell of cooking with garlic drifted in the air mixed with a faint scent of church frankincense and myrrh. Carol shared that her grandmother lived in the downstairs rooms. She was widowed for most of Carol’s life and had always shared the same home as Carol and her family. I followed Carol as we ascended the staircase. The wall from the first-floor foyer up to the second-floor landing was lined with photographs, framed portraits in long perspective. Carol saw that the pictures had my attention and took the time to identify several of them as we climbed the stairs. The first, prominently displayed, was Pope Paul VI. The few that followed were pictures of her maternal and paternal grandparents. There were three pictures, all in black and white, of angelically posed children dressed in white, one boy and two girls. Pictures of Carol and her siblings’ First Holy Communions. I saw three individual ink-black silhouettes of Carol, her sister and brother, that were done in first grade. We chuckled, as I recall my siblings and I also having it done by our own first grade teacher. Three more pictures were hung of the siblings adorned in their Catholic Confirmation robes. At the top of the stairs, the landing leading into the sunroom at the front of the house. We entered the sunroom and standing there basked in sunlight was Carol’s older brother, Anthony. Smiling wide, his bright white teeth shimmering, his eyes had a devilish spark in them as if proud of some unknown accomplishment that only he was aware of. I melted to my core, my heart bumping and thumping. Slender, he was, so young and beautiful, if ever a boy can be that handsome. Now with a shy smile, he said hello as Carol proceeded with the proper introductions. He and I stood there gazing at one another, captivated, neither willing to break the spell. After what seemed like moments, Carol ended the trance by announcing that she was going across the way to visit with her friend Janet and would return when her parents arrived home from work. At that, she departed the room and descended the stairs. Awkward as it was, we watched Carol through the sunroom’s many windows, march across the road to Janet’s home.
Anthony, a shy host at first, offered me a place on the carpeted sunroom floor as there was no furniture in the room. The room was a lemon-yellow, appropriate for a south facing sunroom. It had a closet to one side, a clothes rod running the length of it buoying cold-weather outerwear. In one corner on the floor was a short stack of what appeared to be textbooks and notebook paper. To the right of the closet, hanging on a hook, was a JROTC uniform, neatly pressed, bearing a name plate, honor star, and a Catholic school crest. The room had two outside walls lined with windows and no source of heat that I could see or feel. Brisk as it was, I sat on the carpeted floor; my jacket tossed nearby. He sat across from me, the two of us facing each other as small talk stumbled along.
I was trying to understand what had just taken place but became distracted by his open flannel shirt, the sunlight gleaning on his smooth chest and small tummy, and his well-worn, snug fitting jeans outlining his slim waist, round bottom, and slender legs. Was I here for a purpose that I was not yet aware? No matter, as I was beyond delighted to be with him. I gazed into his eyes as he spoke, probably looking the fool, lusting after this older boy while he talked, and I listened. I didn’t care how it seemed.
I prayed he hadn’t a need to tend to some pressing, older boy concerns. I didn’t want him sending me on my way. But he proved to be a perfectly willing host. I didn’t know it yet, but this boy would become my intimate, new friend. Over time, small talk gave way to more heartfelt words, and a level of coziness began to develop between us just short of intimacy. While we were getting to know one another and moving into conversations of genuine honesty, he confessed that he encouraged his sister to bring me to meet him, revealing that he would watch me from time to time walking his sister home, and then watching as I turned to leave. I now knew the root of that devilish spark in his eyes when I first arrived. But now there was something else in his eyes – a gentleness, a knowing - which made me feel somewhat exposed and vulnerable. But I was also flattered, hopeful, and excited. Our hours spent together this day became the first of many days we would idle away, lying on the sunroom floor, learning of each other’s secrets, and realizing we weren’t alone in this world of ours.
When our small group gathered, Carol would let me know that Anthony was hoping I would be by this day or that and for my own selfish reasons I would never disappoint. Nothing was going to get in the way of my growing fondness for Anthony. The days we spent together led to our blossoming relationship. His parents were off working during the day. His grandmother downstairs, frequently cooking and letting us be. Carol always at Janet’s until dinner time.
We explored each other in ways I never knew possible – mind, body, and soul - learning each other’s darkest secrets, uncertainties, and hopes for the future. The rush of joy and fear, the shame and thrill of our forbidden bond, the secret that twined us together.
The mere thought of him and his beauty, of how he filled me with awe and set my head brimming with hope, made me flush like a boy in the thrall of new love. His skin was neither white nor brown, but a sun kissed golden glow. Smooth and warm and perfect as a boy can be. His dark hair and sweet brown eyes were a family trait. His slender waist and strong legs, his developing chest and shoulders, his arms strong enough to hold me and hold me they did. Lying next to him, feeling the rise and fall of his every breath, listening to his beating heart, breathing in the scent of his innocence; often wearing nothing more than his small gold cross on a fine gold chain. I wished it could last forever.
There were times that he was devilish and feisty, and other times so tender and fragile. Pure, too; no meanness in him. No spite or evil. A boy angel. A dream comes true. A first love. The pain and grief were yet to come, forever destroying the hope Anthony had introduced into my world; our world, a world where I had once believed I would always be alone.
On one visit, he was standing barefoot in his uniform, looking perfect as ever. It was a uniform left over from cadets who had passed through his Catholic school years earlier. The blue service uniform with red cording on the trousers, hung on him as if it had been tailored perfectly to his frame. His name plate was pinned just below the school crest. He looked different with it on…more mature, proper, and so handsome. As he released the brass buckle and removed the belt, he bemoaned the choice he had made to attend a school that he felt was less a choice and more an expectation; a life of inhibition and missed chances, perhaps, but also a bearable life, a life that to some extent we both had chosen and continued to choose. As he removed his uniform, I now saw the boy who I had fallen for, the boy who welcomed me, welcomed who I was, and who I was to him. He was not effeminate in any way, but he was far more beautiful without the uniform on. He wasn’t timid when declaring how he had always hated that uniform and what it represented, proclaiming that it was a denunciation of who he really was. The uniform, which hung prominently in the sunroom, was always a source of consternation for him. He would become philosophical, at times, sounding more mature than the boy who lay naked beside me, warm and tender. Our secrets define us, he would say, but we become the face that we show the world. Always a lie, a uniform, that isn’t who we truly are. We do it for them. We do it for us; just to be able to live in their world. It’s not right. It’s not fair. But, for me, I loved the idea of having something as wonderful as this that I need not share with anyone. Not that I could.
When I was expected, Anthony would greet me at the door. He would see me coming as he gazed out the sunroom windows. On very few occasions, his grandmother would be standing in the dim light of the threshold of her living room and foyer. Always in a black cotton dress, sweater on her shoulders, no adornments beyond a black rosary wrapped in her hands and a silver cross around her neck, tangled in the billowing white lace of her collar, and resting in the crook of her bosom. Her gray hair pulled back in a bun. Her eyes, also gray, were piercing. She would glare at me as if I had done something terrible to offend her. She was matronly, for sure, and gave the strong impression that she could be a force to be reckoned with. There was something about her that made me look at her, then look away, then look back at her, troubled at something. Something felt, not seen. Something emanated out of her eyes and was never there when I looked again. I would feel unwelcomed but not so that I would go away. I wondered what caused the disturbance she radiated so subtly, yet I felt. She moved quietly and talked little, if at all, and only to Anthony. She seemed to cast an invisible cloak of protection over him when I would enter as if I were bringing him sin. Anthony ignored her even when she spoke to him. He would rush me up the stairs. We would relax on the light-colored, soft wool carpet…warm in the summer, cool yet comfortable in the winter. Shoes were removed on the landing before entering. Our clothes in a jumble nearby, unnecessary until it was time to leave. The sun shone through the many windows adding warmth, yet not enough in the colder months. When the weather was cool, a soft blanket was at hand; a welcomed addition to the warmth of our bodies hidden beneath it. After many months and many visits, I began noticing subtle changes with Anthony. Our time together, most always pure bliss, sometimes seemed troubling for him. He began having misgivings of our relationship, rather its consequences and would torture himself weighing the future, and the possible regrets that he and I may have one day. He seemed to lose more of his cheerfulness as he stressed about what his future, our future, would entail. On some days he would express concern about his family, and how they would feel, should he share with them his world as we knew it. Yet still we had days where he was his tender and loving self. As time went on, our visits became fewer and on many of those occasions he appeared somber, brooding over what was to come. Ever affectionate, even when he was aching inside, his caring and the warmth of his embrace never failed to come through, his tenderness never faltering.
I worried when he would contemplate the nature of our world and our place in it. I was forced to see the pain that he was in. I knew and felt that pain, but I was too young to realize the path that he was on. Though his thinking was often severe, he was always gentle with me, warm and tender. He worried about what our future would become while I was delighted thinking about what our future could be. His feeling that he had been abandoned by everyone, even God, made him the most alone that he could ever be. I didn’t see it at the time and didn’t know what he may have intended. When he spoke of these things, there was nothing impatient in his manner, quite the opposite. The silence that followed should have been more worrisome to me. But looking back, it was as if it was perfectly understood, but it wasn’t.
It was times like this that I was truly troubled for him. I loved what I had found in him, in us. But I tried to reconcile his concerns, concerns which seemed to be above my maturity level, with the joy of having found him. I was young and innocent but with a bodily ache that drove me. It was times like this that I wanted to touch him, not with an outcome in mind but with an ache, to make him feel better; an ache which drove me to him and which he felt, too. When I put my arms around him and pressed my body to his, it was to satisfy my ache, but also to ease his pain. Pain that he was sometimes able to let go of while we were together. Just hold me, he would say. And I would. We would embrace for a long time, our kind of physical contact, never seen in public, impermissible; the same touch that would elicit disapproval, scorn…hidden from the eyes of others. And it would upset him so. The need to remain a secret. Not for us, so much. But for all the others. It was times like this, when he would suppose the future, all the ease we had enjoyed together would be gone. It would take away the safety I had felt with him and I hadn’t realized that it could be dissolved so easily.
It is easy to see things in retrospect…but I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical during that time. We were launching merrily down the path of sin. That is how his family would have seen it. But for two years, we had each other and nothing else in the world mattered. One day remains particularly vivid. A brilliant fall day in October. One of the last summery days we had that year. The sun filtered through the many windows of the sunroom. The house was silent, as it often was. We had been talking for hours and I must have fallen asleep during one of the silences. When I woke, he wasn’t there. I knew not to go into the main part of the house. An unspoken understanding. I lay very still for a long time. Eventually, I slipped on my jeans, shirt, and jacket and made my way downstairs, my feet creaking on the steps. The foyer had a sweet, musty smell. Absent was the frequent aroma of garlic and incense. It was so dim that it confirmed that the house was motionless, empty.
I found him on the shady side of the porch sitting in one of the wicker chairs. He had on a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, and like most of the time, he was barefoot, smiling, but not the smile of his relentlessly cheery demeanor. He had a book but wasn’t reading. I sat awhile knowing it would be soon time to leave. The silence was comforting, as it often was when we were together. It represented nothing more than the feeling of security between us. As I was getting up to leave, he asked that I return that evening, unusual as it was. Most of our time together was not beyond the supper hour.
The sky was fierce, burning blue, the trees ferocious shades of red and yellow. The first chill of the snow that would fall that night was already in the air. The last summery day of the year was ending. The kind of day I have loved the most. The cold, gray season, sadly, just ahead.
It was dark when I arrived, and at first, I couldn’t see a thing. The moon came out from behind a cloud, and I saw the first lonely flakes of snow that came drifting down. Then I saw him, right where I had left him earlier that afternoon. His fists thrust deep in the pockets of his jeans. A light jacket, sleeves rolled up, pleased that I had returned that evening. It pained me to think that he would have doubted my return. We spent our evening as we spent our afternoons…in an empty house, lying together, intimately wrapped into each other, a candle burning in the dark sunroom. Sharing our deepest thoughts, feeling comforted in the sometimes silence. He was his usual sweet and gentle self. Attentive and loving. Somewhat restored from his somber afternoon smile. He appeared much calmer, happier, and more relaxed. He was very talkative when not suffering from contemplating the future. He sometimes had gloomy spells. I remember only too well the long terrible days and nights that would follow those occasions. I thought of him anxiously and often, worried that things may not be well with us. But this evening he was his most wonderful, and I was reassured. We seldom talked about his family. Never mine. Sometimes his grandmother, as she was often a presence not too far from where we would seal our pleasures and the love and lust that seared us. Odd that our conversations were mostly about who we were, how we felt, the feelings we had developed, and how we had to navigate our daily lives under the circumstances of our awareness. Sharing thoughts of what may come had a dispiriting effect on him. So, if we stumbled on that topic, we quickly turned our focus on the here and now. We shared an emotional and physical intimacy that was more tender and gentler than anything either one of us believed possible.
He had once asked, or maybe had simply mused, that if youthful innocence is destroyed, was it a sin, and would it go unpunished? It was confusing to me. Were we innocence destroyed? Sinners to be punished? A deep melancholy that would not lift for many weeks had already begun to settle around him. And I know I said earlier that he was perfect, but he wasn’t perfect. He could be silly, which I loved in him, and sometimes worrying, which I thought unnecessary; but also, remote when he would ponder the conflict between life’s possibilities and life’s expectations. It was when he was conflicted that my melancholy began to turn into something like alarm. It has always been hard for me to think of him without romanticizing him. In many ways, I loved him the most of all if not only him; and it is with him that I am most tempted to flatter. It was one of the reasons I loved him: for that flattering light in which he saw me, for the person I was when I was with him, for what it was he allowed me to be, what he allowed us to be. I loved him as he was perfect, if only for me.
He once confessed that sometimes when he wasn’t with me, he was thinking about what was to come, contemplating the future - his future, our future. Next week, next month, next year, and beyond. Where would we be? How would we do it? That thinking was difficult for him. His mind trying to figure it out. It would frustrate him. It was a tree where the fruit was out of his reach. It made him unhappy knowing that it was filled with constraints, admitting that he had little control over the reality of things. A near-perfect elixir for pessimism--believing he had little influence over the social and religious norms he had to contend with. We were doing our best just to keep to ourselves, to keep what we had safe.
I wake up every day with nothing to look forward to but us, he confessed. I feel like staying in bed.
With me! I would say, trying to make light of his pessimism.
But his pessimism was worrying to me. It was not just his future that felt bleak to him, it was also our future that felt bleak to him. There seemed little either of us can do about the circumstances imposed upon us. He would darkly muse that he would likely never see the future that he wanted nor the future that was expected of him. He seemed stuck in a cycle of frustrating hopelessness. It was a twisted notion to think that his life may revolve around the expectations of others with him having little choice in the matter.
It was in July. The air was thick and hot with moisture. We should have been celebrating his twenty-second birthday. Several days went by and there was no Carol. Unusual it was that she would be missing from our social circle for any length of time. Anthony, being a bit older, wasn’t part of that same circle. If he had any social circle at all, I didn’t know of it. When a couple of days turned into several, it was learned that her only brother had died; the revelation shared by a mutual friend when several of us were gathered. My insides immediately exploded with pain and twisted agony. I refused to believe it but with the crippling pain that invaded my body, I knew it to be true. It was immediately followed with the shock that he took his own life; found hanging in the closet of their sunroom. I remember shouting that it couldn’t be true. Heart wrenching pain took over my body. At that very moment, to keep from falling to the ground and flailing about in agony, I bolted. A sudden fever was boiling my flesh, the heat so intense causing me to collapse to the ground.
Struggling to my feet and stumbling away, not caring what they thought of my strange behavior. My body feeling inflamed, the sensation of pins and needles painfully piercing my flesh. I ran to his home, screaming in my head, Anthony no, please no! Please, no God! Don’t let it be true.
Arriving at his home, my body shutting down from the agonizing possibility that he was gone, I sobbed uncontrollably not caring who would see. I stared up at the sunroom through tear-filled eyes, pleading for him to look down at me, like he always did when I was expected. Clamping my teeth down, burying my face in my hands, squeezing my eyes shut, pleading that the rumors were not true. My legs and arms, painfully vibrating out of control. Electric currents running through my body. Violently sobbing, it can’t be true. The black manacle of grief closed around my shattered heart and locked into place like a horrible sickness. Then I knew.
I saw that the shades, yellow with age, were drawn in the sunroom blocking any view into what was, our room. The windows now reflecting the setting sun. I was a spectacle outside a home which had just experienced tragedy. With my head pounding, I willed my body to carry me away. The abandoned railroad tracks, just a city block from where I stood, with overgrown vegetation, providing me a place to retreat undetected to suffer with the most excruciating pain I have ever experienced.
Hidden alone among the tall brush, I tried to make God have it not be true. I begged God to take me with him. I promised everything that was holy if only He would put us together again – here in life, or there in death. I wanted to be with him more than wanting life itself. Violent convulsions, my mind screaming in terror and grief, I prayed God to make me lose consciousness, to die, escape into nothingness where the pain couldn’t reach me. I wanted to go be with him. Yelling with such bile, I cursed God for taking him and begged Him to take me too. I’d make a deal with the devil if God didn’t come through for me.
My cursing at God continued to burst from my throat between calls to Anthony to come back to me. Each wail wrenched the strength from my body. I willed my heart to stop, my lungs to cease, for death to come to me. I had lost complete control.
I must have been there for hours. I just don’t know. I was completely drained of the will to go on. I knew I was alone with my grief. I knew that I couldn’t explain to anyone how I felt or why. I didn’t believe that anyone would understand how I felt or that they would care. I would be carrying this agonizing grief alone for always.
Daylight had turned to night, the moon nearly full, glowing in the violet sky, and the first stars glimmered. I must have lost consciousness. I had vomited on myself. My face was marked with tears and mucous and grief; raging that death didn’t come to me.
I was truly alone, as I had always expected to be before Anthony gave me a glimpse of what life could be like. I missed him so much. The light in his eyes, his low and soft voice, his tender lips, and the warmth of his embrace gave me hope that I too can be forever happy in this lifetime. But it wasn’t to be. Alone again with my demons, the same demons he had banished from my world for so short a time, the same demons that would cause him to take his own life.
My grief went on for years without relief. Thinking about him would bring such horrible anguish that would never fully recede. The stabbing ache inside me would continue. The painful sensation of pins and needles on my flesh would surface again and again; the need to stay mired in that foggy no-man’s land, like the moment between sleep and waking when a vivid dream slides away, one unlikely image at a time.
The suffering of so great a loss would visit me for many years to come. The conditions of our relationship would cause me to suffer entirely alone. I yearned for him for years, still missing him to this very day.
This unresolved grief is still mine alone. When it surfaces, as it does from time to time, it still numbs my spirit, breaks my heart, and drains my veins. Thinking about him sometimes overwhelms me with grief and immeasurable loss. Yet I must remain silent. When engulfed by the pain, it seems as if my losing him was just yesterday. Nothing in my life has changed me more than the love and loss of Anthony. It’s a kind of forever pain that resides deep within me. It’s a suffering of the worst kind. No one else would know how I feel as I had to be alone with my grief. Wanting Anthony to return was sometimes so intense that it stripped me of other desires. Life had no meaning; joy was out of bounds. My mind was filled with intrusive thoughts about death, uncontrollable bouts of sadness, guilt, and regret. Buried in the neighborhood cemetery, a simple family stone, the only thing left tangible of Anthony’s existence. I’m drawn to this site, during the first few days of July, the time of his birth and death. The religious concepts of the everlasting soul and life thereafter bear no significance to me. But I am drawn to his grave anyway. To talk to him. To ask him why. To wish him peace. To be reassured that he no longer has pain and to be forgiven for not knowing. And then it starts again. The horrible vision of his last moments twisting up inside me. Grieving a deeper hurt than anything ever sustained by the body. A wounded body heals itself, but there is a scar. The same must be true for the soul. It’s the wounding of the soul still not healed. Sometimes from these visits, I find that I’m still weeping my heart out over my own private sorrow, my own private demons…sometimes at night quietly weeping bitter, soul-wrenching tears, as if it were just yesterday.
Everything that’s been done to us we carry forever. We would do our damnedest to hold on to the good and forget the rest. Locked in our hearts, in a place our waking minds can’t or won’t touch, the worst is stored. The only key is in our dreams, our nightmares.
Yes, the years have helped. Others have come and gone. Anthony was the sweetest first in many ways. Sometimes in the blue quiet of the morning or in the black hush of the night, I would see him. He would be as he had always been to me. Sweet and pure. Warm and tender. Young and beautiful. In the ebb of my life, the thought of him makes the years melt away. My love for him, rekindles. My need for him begins to burn again. The loss renewed. A first love gone. And still quietly, the suffering continues.