Once again, in Berlin, a Stephanides lives among the Turks. I feel comfortable here in Schöneberg. The Turkish shops along Hauptstrasse are like those my father used to take me to. The food is the same, the dried figs, the halvah, the stuffed grape leaves. The faces are the same, too, seamed, dark-eyed, significantly boned. Despite family history, I feel drawn to Turkey. I’d like to work in the embassy in Istanbul. I’ve put in a request to be transferred there. It would bring me full circle.
Until that happens, I do my part this way. I watch the bread baker in the döner restaurant downstairs. He bakes bread in a stone oven like those they used to have in Smyrna. He uses a long-handled spatula to shift and retrieve the bread. All day long he works, fourteen, sixteen hours, with unflagging concentration, his sandals leaving prints in the flour dust on the floor. An artist of bread baking. Stephanides, an American, grandchild of Greeks, admires this Turkish immigrant to Germany, thisGastarbeiter , as he bakes bread on Hauptstrasse here in the year 2001. We’re all made up of many parts, other halves. Not just me.
The bell on the door of Ed’s Barbershop in the Scranton bus station merrily rang. Ed, who had been reading the newspaper, lowered it to greet his next customer.
There was a pause. And then Ed said, “What happened? You lose a bet?”
Standing inside the door but looking as though he might flee back out of it was a teenage kid, tall, stringy, and an odd mix if ever Ed saw one. His hair was a hippie’s and came down past his shoulders. But he was wearing a dark suit. The jacket was baggy and the trousers were too short, riding high above his chunky tan, square-toed shoes. Even from across the shop Ed detected a musty, thrift-store smell. Yet the kid’s suitcase was big and gray, a businessman’s.
“I’m just tired of the style,” the kid answered.
“You and me both,” said Ed the barber.
He directed me to a chair. I—the easily rechristened Cal Stephanides, teen runaway—set my suitcase down and hung my jacket on the rack. I walked across the room, concentrating as I did on walking like a boy. Like a stroke victim, I was having to relearn all the simple motor skills. As far as walking went, this wasn’t too difficult. The time when Baker & Inglis girls had balanced books on their heads was long gone. The slight gracelessness of my walk, which Dr. Luce had commented on, predisposed me to join the graceless sex. My skeleton was a male’s, with its higher center of gravity. It promoted a tidy, forward thrust. It was my knees that gave me trouble. I had a tendency to walk knock-kneed, which made my hips sway and my back end twitch. I tried to keep my pelvis steady now. To walk like a boy you let your shoulders sway, not your hips. And you kept your feet farther apart. All this I had learned in a day and a half on the road.
I climbed into the chair, glad to stop moving. Ed the barber tied a paper bib around my neck. Next he draped an apron over me. All the while he was taking my measure and shaking his head. “I never understood what it was with you young people and the long hair. Nearly ruined my business. I get mostly retired fellas in here. Guys who come in my shop for a haircut, they don’thave any hair.” He chuckled, but only briefly. “Okay, so nowadays the hairstyles are a little bit shorter. I think, good, maybe I can make a living. But no. Now everyone wants to go unisex. They want to beshampooed .” He leaned toward me, suspicious. “You don’t want a shampoo, do you?”
“Just a haircut.”
He nodded, satisfied. “How do you want it?”
“Short,” I ventured.
“Short short?” he asked.
“Short,” I said, “but not too short.”
“Okay. Short but not too short. Good idea. See how the other half lives.”
I froze, thinking he meant something by this. But he was only joking.
As for himself, Ed kept a neat head. What hair he had was slicked back. He had a brutal, pugnacious face. His nostrils were dark and fiery as he labored around me, pumping up the chair and stropping his razor.
“Your father let you keep your hair like this?”
“Up until now.”
“So the old man is finally straightening you out. Listen, you won’t regret it. Women don’t want a guy looks like a girl. Don’t believe what they tell you, they want a sensitive male. Bullshit!”
The swearing, the straight razors, the shaving brushes, all these were my welcome to the masculine world. The barber had the football game on the TV. The calendar showed a vodka bottle and a pretty girl in a white fur bikini. I planted my feet on the waffle iron of the footrest while he swiveled me back and forth before the flashing mirrors.
“Holy mackerel, when’s the last time you had a haircut anyway?”
“Remember the moon landing?”
“Yeah. That’s about right.”
He turned me to face the mirror. And there she was, for the last time, in the silvered glass: Calliope. She still wasn’t gone yet. She was like a captive spirit, peeking out.
Ed the barber put a comb in my long hair. He lifted it experimentally, making snipping sounds with his scissors. The blades weren’t touching my hair. The snipping was only a kind of mental barbering, a limbering up. This gave me time for second thoughts. What was I doing? What if Dr. Luce was right? What if that girl in the mirror reallywas me? How did I think I could defect to the other side so easily? What did I know about boys, about men? I didn’t even like them that much.
“This is like taking down a tree,” opined Ed. “First you gotta go in and lop off the branches. Then you chop down the trunk.”
I closed my eyes. I refused to return Calliope’s gaze any longer. I gripped the armrests and waited for the barber to do his work. But in the next second the scissors clinked onto the shelf. With a buzz, the electric clippers switched on. They circled my head like bees. Again Ed the barber lifted my hair with his comb and I heard the buzzer dive in toward my head. “Here we go,” he said.
My eyes were still closed. But I knew there was no going back now. The clippers raked across my scalp. I held firm. Hair fell away in strips.
“I should charge you extra,” said Ed.
Now I did open my eyes, alarmed about the cost. “How much is it?”
“Don’t worry. Same price. This is my patriotic deed today. I’m making the world safe for democracy.”
My grandparents had fled their home because of a war. Now, some fifty-two years later, I was fleeing myself. I felt that I was saving myself just as definitively. I was fleeing without much money in my pocket and under the alias of my new gender. A ship didn’t carry me across the ocean; instead, a series of cars conveyed me across a continent. I was becoming a new person, too, just like Lefty and Desdemona, and I didn’t know what would happen to me in this new world to which I’d come.
I was also scared. I had never been out on my own before. I didn’t know how the world operated or how much things cost. From the Lochmoor Hotel I had taken a cab to the bus terminal, not knowing the way. At Port Authority I wandered past the tie shops and fast-food stalls, looking for the ticket booths. When I found them I bought a ticket for a night bus to Chicago, paying the fare as far as Scranton, Pennsylvania, which was as much as I thought I could afford. The bums and druggies occupying the scoop benches looked me over, sometimes hissing or smacking their lips. They scared me, too. I nearly gave up the idea of running away. If I hurried, I could make it back to the hotel before Milton and Tessie returned from seeing Carol Channing. I sat in the waiting area, considering this, the edge of the Samsonite clamped between my knees as though any minute someone might try to snatch it away. I played out scenes in my head where I declared my intention of living as a boy and my parents, at first protesting but then breaking down, accepted me. A policeman passed by. When he was gone I went to sit next to a middle-aged woman, hoping to be taken for her daughter. Over the loudspeaker a voice announced that my bus was boarding. I looked up at the other passengers, the poor traveling by night. There was an aging cowboy carrying a duffel bag and a souvenir Louis Armstrong statuette; there were two Sri Lankan Catholic priests; there were no less than three overweight mothers loaded down with children and bedding, and a little man who turned out to be a horse jockey, with cigarette wrinkles and brown teeth. They lined up to board the bus while the scene in my head began to go off on its own, to stop taking my directorial notes. Now Milton was shaking his head no, and Dr. Luce was putting on a surgical mask, and my schoolmates back in Grosse Pointe were pointing at me and laughing, their faces lit with malicious joy.
In a trance of fear, dazed yet trembling, I proceeded onto the dark bus. For protection I took a seat next to the middle-aged lady. The other passengers, accustomed to these night journeys, were already taking out thermoses and unwrapping sandwiches. The smell of fried chicken began to waft from the back seats. I was suddenly very hungry. I wished that I were back at the hotel, ordering room service. I would have to get new clothes soon. I needed to look older and less like prey. I had to start dressing like a boy. The bus pulled out of Port Authority and I watched, terrified at what I was doing but unable to stop myself, as we made our way out of the city and through the long yellow-lit dizzy tunnel that led to New Jersey. Going underground, through the rock, with the filthy river bottom above us, and fish swimming in the black water on the other side of the curving tiles.
At a Salvation Army outlet in Scranton, not far from the bus station, I went looking for a suit. I pretended I was shopping for my brother, though no one asked any questions. Male sizes baffled me. I held the jackets discreetly against me to see what might fit. Finally I found a suit roughly my size. It was sturdy-looking and all-weather. The label inside said “Durenmatt’s Men’s Clothiers, Pittsburgh.” I took off my Papagallo. Checking to see if anyone was watching, I tried the jacket on. I didn’t feel what a boy would feel. It wasn’t like putting on your father’s jacket and becoming a man. It was like being cold and having your date give you his jacket to wear. As it settled on my shoulders, the jacket felt big, warm, comforting, alien. (And who was my date in this case? The football captain? No. My steady was the World War II vet, dead of heart disease. My guy was the Elk Lodge member who had moved to Texas.)
The suit was only part of my new identity. It was the haircut that mattered most. Now, in the barbershop, Ed was going at me with a whisk brush. The bristles cast a powder in the air and I closed my eyes. I felt myself being wheeled around again and the barber said, “Okay, that’s it.”
I opened my eyes. And in the mirror I didn’t see myself. Not the Mona Lisa with the enigmatic smile any longer. Not the shy girl with the tangled black hair in her face, but instead her fraternal twin brother. With the screen of my hair removed, the recent changes in my face were far more evident. My jaw looked squarer, broader, my neck thicker, with a bulge of Adam’s apple in the center. It was unquestionably a male face, but the feelings inside that boy were still a girl’s. To cut off your hair after a breakup was a feminine reaction. It was a way to start over, to renounce vanity, to spite love. I knew that I would never see the Object again. Despite bigger problems, greater worries, it was heartbreak that seized me when I first saw my male face in the mirror. I thought: it’s over. By cutting off my hair I was punishing myself for loving someone so much. I was trying to be stronger.
By the time I came out of Ed’s Barbershop, I was a new creation. The other people passing through the bus station, to the extent they noticed me at all, took me for a student at a nearby boarding school. A prep school kid, a touch arty, wearing an old man’s suit and no doubt reading Camus or Kerouac. There was a kind of beatnik quality to the Durenmatt’s suit. The trousers had a sharkskin sheen. Because of my height I could pass for older than I was, seventeen, maybe eighteen. Under the suit was a crew neck sweater, under the sweater was an alligator shirt, two protective layers of parental money next to my skin, plus the golden Wallabees on my feet. If anyone noticed me, they thought I was playing dress-up, as teenagers do.
Inside these clothes my heart was still beating like mad. I didn’t know what to do next. Suddenly I had to pay attention to things I’d never paid any attention to. To bus schedules and bus fares, to budgeting money, toworrying about money, to scanning a menu for the absolutely cheapest thing that would fill me up, which that day in Scranton turned out to be chili. I ate a bowl of it, stirring in multiple packets of crackers, and looked over the bus routes. The best thing to do, it being fall, was to head south or west for the winter, and because I didn’t want to go south I decided to go west. To California. Why not? I checked to see what the fare would be. As I feared, it was too much.
Throughout the morning it had drizzled on and off, but now the clouds were breaking up. Across the desperate eatery, through the rain-greased windows and beyond the access road that bounded a strip of sloping littered grass, ran the Interstate. I watched the traffic whizzing along, feeling less hungry now but still lonely and scared. The waitress came over and asked if I wanted coffee. Though I had never had a cup of coffee before, I said yes. After she served it to me, I doctored it with two packets of creamer and four of sugar. When it tasted roughly like coffee ice cream, I drank it.
From the terminal buses were steadily pulling out, leaving gassy trails. Down on the highway cars sped along. I wanted to take a shower. I wanted to lie down in clean sheets and go to sleep. I could get a motel room for $9.95, but I wanted to be farther away before I did that. I sat in the booth for a long time. I couldn’t see my way to the next step. Finally, an idea occurred to me. Paying my bill, I left the bus terminal. I crossed the access road and shuffled down the slope. I set down my suitcase on the shoulder and, stepping out to face the oncoming traffic, tentatively stuck out my thumb.
My parents had always cautioned me against hitchhiking. Sometimes Milton pointed out stories in the newspaper detailing the gruesome ends of coeds who had made that mistake. My thumb was not very high in the air. Half of me was against the idea. Cars sped past. No one stopped. My reluctant thumb was shaking.
I had miscalculated with Luce. I thought that after talking to me he would decide that I was normal and leave me alone. But I was beginning to understand something about normality. Normality wasn’t normal. It couldn’t be. If normality were normal, everybody could leave it alone. They could sit back and let normality manifest itself. But people—and especially doctors—had doubts about normality. They weren’t sure normality was up to the job. And so they felt inclined to give it a boost.
As for my parents, I held them blameless. They were only trying to save me from humiliation, lovelessness, even death. I learned later that Dr. Luce had emphasized the medical risk in letting my condition go untreated. The “gonadal tissue,” as he referred to my undescended testes, often became cancerous in later years. (I’m forty-one now, however, and so far nothing has happened.)
A semi appeared around the bend, blowing black smoke from an upright exhaust pipe. In the window of the red cab the driver’s head was bouncing like the head of a doll on a spring. His face turned in my direction, and as the huge truck roared past, he engaged the brakes. The rear wheels of the cab smoked a little, squealed, and then twenty yards ahead of me the truck was waiting.
Lifting my suitcase, with a wild excitement, I ran up to the truck. But when I reached it I stopped. The door looked so high up. The huge vehicle sat rumbling, shuddering. I couldn’t see the driver from my vantage point and stood paralyzed with indecision. Then suddenly the trucker’s face appeared in the window, startling me. He opened the door.
“You coming up or what?”
“Coming,” I said.
The cab was not clean. He had been traveling for some time and there were food containers and bottles strewn around.
“Your job is to keep me awake,” the trucker said.
When I didn’t respond right away he looked over at me. His eyes were red. Red, too, were the Fu Manchu mustache and the long sideburns. “Just keep talking,” he said.
“What do you want to talk about?”
“Fuck-all if I know!” he shouted angrily. But just as suddenly: “Indians! You know anything about Indians?”
“Yeah. I pick up a lot of Injuns when I drive out west. Those are some of the craziest motherfuckers I ever heard. They got all kinds of theories and shit.”
“Like some of ’em say they didn’t come over the Bering land bridge. Are you familiar with the Bering land bridge? That’s up there in Alaska. Called the Bering Strait now. It’s water. Little sliver of water between Alaska and Russia. Long time ago, though, it was land, and that’s where the Indians came over from. From like China or Mongolia. Indians are really Orientals.”
“I didn’t know that,” I said. I was feeling less scared now than before. The trucker was apparently taking me at face value.
“But some of these Indians I pick up, they say their people didn’t come over the land bridge. They say they come from a lost island, like Atlantis.”
“Join the club.”
“You know what else they say?”
“They say it was Indians wrote theConstitution . The U.S.Constitution !”
As it turned out, he did most of the talking. I said very little. But my presence was enough to keep him awake. Talking about Indians reminded him about meteors; there was a meteor in Montana that the Indians considered sacred, and soon he was telling me about the celestial sights a trucker’s life acquainted a person with, the shooting stars and comets and green rays. “You ever seen a green ray?” he asked me.
“They say you can’t take a picture of a green ray, but I got one. I always keep a camera in the cab in case I come across some mind-blowing shit like that. And one time I saw this green ray and I grabbed my camera and I got it. I’ve got the picture at home.”
“What is a green ray?”
“It’s the color the sun makes when it rises and sets. For two seconds. You can see it best in the mountains.”
He took me as far as Ohio and let me off in front of a motel. I thanked him for the ride and carried my suitcase up to the office. Here the suit also came in useful. Plus the expensive luggage. I didn’t look like a runaway. The motel clerk may have had doubts about my age, but I laid money on the counter right away, and the key was forthcoming.
After Ohio came Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. I rode in station wagons, sport cars, rented vans. Single women never picked me up, only men, or men with women. A pair of Dutch tourists stopped for me, complaining about the frigidity of American beer, and sometimes I got rides from couples who were fighting and tired of each other. In every case, people took me for the teenage boy I was every minute more conclusively becoming. Sophie Sassoon wasn’t around to wax my mustache, so it began to fill in, a smudge above my upper lip. My voice continued to deepen. Every jolt in the road dropped my Adam’s apple another notch in my neck.
If people asked, I told them I was on my way to California for my freshman year at college. I didn’t know much about the world, but I knew something about colleges, or at least about homework, and so claimed that I was going to Stanford to live in a dorm. To be honest, my drivers weren’t too suspicious. They didn’t care one way or another. They had their own agendas. They were bored, or lonely, and wanted someone to talk to.
Like a convert to a new religion, I overdid it at first. Somewhere near Gay, Indiana, I adopted a swagger. I rarely smiled. My expression throughout Illinois was the Clint Eastwood squint. It was all a bluff, but so was it on most men. We were all walking around squinting at each other. My swagger wasn’t that different from what lots of adolescent boys put on, trying to be manly. For that reason it was convincing. Its very falseness made it credible. Now and then I fell out of character. Feeling something stuck to the bottom of my shoe, I kicked up my heel and looked back over my shoulder to see what it was, rather than crossing my leg in front of me and twisting up my shoe. I picked correct change from my open palm instead of my trouser pocket. Such slips made me panic, but needlessly. No one noticed. I was aided by that: as a rule people don’t notice much.
It would be a lie to tell you I understood everything I was feeling. You don’t, at fourteen. An instinct for self-preservation told me to run, and I was running. Dread pursued me. I missed my parents. I felt guilty for making them worry. Dr. Luce’s report haunted me. At night, in various motels, I cried myself to sleep. Running away didn’t make me feel any less of a monster. I saw ahead of me only humiliation and rejection, and I wept for my life.
But in the mornings I woke up feeling better. I left my motel room and went out to stand in the air of the world. I was young, and, despite dread, full of animal spirits; it was impossible for me to take a dark view too long. Somehow I was able to forget about myself for long stretches. I ate doughnuts for breakfast. I kept drinking very sweet, milky coffee. To lift my mood, I did things my parents wouldn’t have let me do, ordering two and sometimes three desserts and never eating salads. I was free now to let my teeth rot or to put my feet up on the backs of seats. Sometimes while I was hitching I saw other runaways. Under overpasses or in runoff drains they congregated, smoking cigarettes, the hoods of their sweatshirts pulled up. They were tougher than I was, scroungier. I steered clear of their packs. They were from broken homes, had been physically abused and now abused others. I wasn’t anything like them. I had brought my family’s upward mobility out onto the road. I joined no packs but went my way alone.
And now, amid the prairie, appears the recreation vehicle belonging to Myron and Sylvia Bresnick, of Pelham, New York. Like a modern-day covered wagon, it rolls out of the waving grasslands and stops. A door opens, like the door of a house, and standing inside is a perky woman in her late sixties.
“I think we’ve got room for you,” she says.
A moment before, I had been on Route 80 in western Iowa. But now as I carry my suitcase onto this ship of the prairie, I am suddenly in the Bresnicks’ living room. Framed photographs of their children hang on the walls, along with Chagall prints. The history of Winston Churchill that Myron is working his way through at night at the hookups sits on the coffee table.
Myron is a retired parts salesman, Sylvia a former social worker. In profile she resembles a cute Punchinello, her cheeks expressive, painted, and the nose carved for comic effect. Myron works his lips around his cigar, foul and intimate with his own juices.
While Myron drives, Sylvia gives me a tour of the beds, the shower, the living area. What school do I go to? What do I want to be? She peppers me with questions.
Myron turns from the wheel and booms, “Stanford! Good school!”
And it is right then that it happens. At some moment on Route 80 something clicks in my head and suddenly I feel I am getting the hang of it. Myron and Sylvia are treating me like a son. Under this collective delusion I become that, for a little while at least. I become male-identified.
But something daughterly must cling to me, too. For soon Sylvia has taken me aside to complain about her husband. “I know it’s tacky. This whole RV thing. You should see the people we meet in these camps. They call it the ‘RV lifestyle.’ Oh, they’re nice enough—but boring. I miss going to cultural events. Myron says he spent his life traveling around the country too busy to see it. So he’s doing it over again—slowly. And guess who gets dragged along?”
“My heart?” Myron is calling to her. “Could you bring your husband an iced tea, please? He’s parched.”
They let me off in Nebraska. I counted my money and found I had two hundred and thirty dollars left. I found a cheap room in a kind of boardinghouse and stayed the night. I was still too scared to hitchhike in the dark.
On the road there was time for minor adjustments. Many of the socks I’d brought were the wrong color—pink, white, or covered with whales. Also my underpants weren’t the right kind. At a Woolworth’s in Nebraska City I bought a three-pack of boxer shorts. As a girl, I had worn size large. As a boy, medium. I trolled through the toiletries section, too. Instead of row upon row of beauty products there was only a single rack of hygienic essentials. The explosion in men’s cosmetics hadn’t happened yet. There were no pampering unguents disguised by rugged names. No Heavy-Duty Skin Repair. No Anti-Burn Shave Gel. I selected deodorant, disposable razors, and shaving cream. The colorful cologne bottles attracted me, but my experience with aftershaves was not favorable. Cologne made me think of voice coaches, of maître d’s, of old men and their unwanted embraces. I picked out a man’s wallet, too. At the register, I couldn’t look the cashier in the face, as embarrassed as if I were buying condoms. The cashier wasn’t much older than I was, with blond, feathered hair. That heartland look.
At restaurants I began to use the men’s rooms. This was perhaps the hardest adjustment. I was scandalized by the filth of men’s rooms, the rank smells and pig sounds, the grunting and huffing from the stalls. Urine was forever puddled on the floors. Scraps of soiled toilet paper adhered to the commodes. When you entered a stall, more often than not a plumbing emergency greeted you, a brown tide, a soup of dead frogs. To think that a toilet stall had once been a haven for me! That was all over now. I could see at once that men’s rooms, unlike the ladies’, provided no comfort. Often there wasn’t even a mirror, or any hand soap. And while the closeted, flatulent men showed no shame, at the urinals men acted nervous. They looked straight ahead like horses with blinders.
I understood at those times what I was leaving behind: the solidarity of a shared biology. Women know what it means to have a body. They understand its difficulties and frailties, its glories and pleasures. Men think their bodies are theirs alone. They tend them in private, even in public.
A word on penises. What was Cal’s official position on penises? Among them, surrounded by them, his feelings were the same as they had been as a girl: by equal measures fascinated and horrified. Penises had never really done that much for me. My girlfriends and I had a comical opinion of them. We hid our guilty interest by giggling or pretending disgust. Like every schoolgirl on a field trip, I’d had my blushing moments among the Roman antiquities. I’d stolen peeks when the teacher’s back was turned. It’s our first art lesson as kids, isn’t it? The nudes are dressed. They’re dressed in high-mindedness. Being six years older, my brother had never shared a bathtub with me. The glimpses of his genitals I’d had over the years were fleeting. I’d studiously looked away. Even Jerome had penetrated me without my seeing what went on. Anything so long concealed couldn’t fail to intrigue me. But the glimpses those men’s rooms afforded were on the whole disappointing. The proud phallus was nowhere in evidence, only the feed bag, the dry tuber, the snail that had lost its shell.
And I was scared to death of being caught looking. Despite my suit, my haircut, and my height, every time I went into a men’s room a shout rang out in my head: “You’re in the men’s!” But the men’s was where I was supposed to be. Nobody said a word. Nobody objected to my presence. And so I searched for a stall that looked halfway clean. I had to sit to urinate. Still do.
At night, on the fungal carpets of motel rooms, I did exercises, push-ups and sit-ups. Wearing nothing but my new boxers, I examined my physique in the mirror. Not long ago I’d fretted over my failure to develop. That worry was gone now. I didn’t have to live up to that standard anymore. The impossible demands had been removed and I felt a vast relief. But there were also moments of dislocation, staring at my changing body. Sometimes it didn’t feel like my own. It was hard, white, bony. Beautiful in its own way, I supposed, but Spartan. Not receptive or pliant at all. Contents under pressure, rather.
It was in those motel rooms that I learned about my new body, its specific instructions and contraindications. The Object and I had worked in the dark. She had never really explored my apparatus much. The Clinic had medicalized my genitals. During my time there they were numb or slightly tender from the constant examinations. My body had shut down in order to get through the ordeal. But traveling woke it up. Alone, with the door locked and the chain on, I experimented with myself. I put pillows between my legs. I lay on top of them. Half paying attention, while I watched Johnny Carson, my hand prospected. The anxiety I’d always felt about how I was made had kept me from exploring the way most kids did. So it was only now, lost to the world and everyone I knew, that I had the courage to try it out. I can’t discount the importance of this. If I had doubts about my decision, if I sometimes thought about turning back, running back to my parents and the Clinic and giving in, what stopped me was this private ecstasy between my legs. I knew it would be taken from me. I don’t want to overestimate the sexual. But it was a powerful force for me, especially at fourteen, with my nerves bright and jangling, ready to launch into a symphony at the slightest provocation. That was how Cal discovered himself, in voluptuous, liquid, sterile culmination, couchant upon two or three deformed pillows, with the shades drawn and the drained swimming pool outside and the cars passing, endlessly, all night.
Outside Nebraska City, a silver Nova hatchback pulled over. I ran up with my suitcase and opened the passenger door. At the wheel was a good-looking man in his early thirties. He wore a tweed coat and yellow V-neck sweater. His plaid shirt was open at the collar, but the wings were crisp with starch. The formality of his clothes contrasted with his relaxed manner. “Hello deh,” he said, doing a Brooklyn accent.
“Thanks for stopping.”
He lit a cigarette and introduced himself, extending his hand. “Ben Scheer.”
“My name’s Cal.”
He didn’t ask the usual questions about my origin and destination. Instead, as we drove off, he asked, “Where did you get that suit?”
“Really?” I said. And then reconsidered. “You’re teasing.”
“No, I’m not,” said Scheer. “I like a suit somebody died in. It’s very existential.”
He gave me a direct look. “An existentialist is someone who lives for the moment.”
No one had ever talked to me like this before. I liked it. As we drove on through the yellow country, Scheer told me other interesting things. I learned about Ionesco and the Theater of the Absurd. Also about Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. It’s hard to express the excitement such phrases instilled in a kid like me from the cultural sticks. The Charm Bracelets wanted to pretend they were from the East, and I guess I had picked up that urge, too.
“Did you ever live in New York?” I asked.
“I was just there. I want to live there someday.”
“I lived there ten years.”
“Why did you leave?”
Again the direct look. “I woke up one morning and realized, if I didn’t, I’d be dead in a year.”
This, too, seemed marvelous.
Scheer’s face was handsome, pale, with an Asiatic cast to his gray eyes. His light brown frizzy hair was scrupulously brushed, and parted by fiat. After a while I noticed other niceties of his dress, the monogrammed cuff links, the Italian loafers. I liked him immediately. Scheer was the kind of man I thought I would like to be myself.
Suddenly, from the rear of the car there erupted a magnificent, weary, soul-emptying sigh.
“How ya doin’, Franklin?” Scheer called.
On hearing his name, Franklin lifted his troubled, regal head from the recesses of the hatchback, and I saw the black-and-white markings of an English setter. Ancient, rheumy-eyed, he gave me the once-over and dropped back out of sight.
Scheer was meanwhile pulling off the highway. He had a breezy highway driving style, but when making any kind of maneuver he snapped into military action, pummeling the wheel with strong hands. He pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store. “Back in a minute.”
Holding a cigarette at his hip like a riding crop, he walked with clipped steps into the store. While he was gone I looked around the car. It was immaculately clean, the floor mats freshly vacuumed. The glove box contained orderly maps and tapes of Mabel Mercer. Scheer reappeared with two full shopping bags.
“I think road drinks are in order,” he said.
He had a twelve-pack carton of beer, two bottles of Blue Nun, and a bottle of Lancers rosé, in a faux clay bottle. He set all of these on the backseat.
This was part of being sophisticated, too. You drank cheap Liebfraumilch in plastic cups, calling it cocktails, and carved off hunks of Cheddar cheese with a Swiss Army knife. Scheer had assembled a nice hors d’oeuvre platter from meager sources. There were also olives. We headed back out across the no-man’s-land, while Scheer directed me to open the wine and serve him snacks. I was now his page. He had me put in the Mabel Mercer tape and then enlightened me about her meticulous phrasing.
Suddenly he raised his voice. “Cops. Keep your glass down.”
I quickly lowered my Blue Nun and we drove on, acting cool as the state trooper passed on our left.
By now Scheer was doing the cop’s voice. “I know city slickers when I see ’em and them thar’s two of the slickest of ’em all. I’d wager they’re up to no good.”
To all this I responded with laughter, happy to be in league against the world of hypocrites and rulemongers.
When it began to grow dark, Scheer chose a steak house. I was worried it might be too expensive, but he told me, “Dinner’s on me tonight.”
Inside, it was busy, a popular place, the only table open a small one near the bar.
To the waitress Scheer said, “I’ll have a vodka martini, very dry,two olives, and my son here will have a beer.”
The waitress looked at me.
“He got any ID?”
“Not on me,” I said.
“Can’t serve you, then.”
“I was there at his birth. I can vouch for him,” said Scheer.
“Sorry, no ID, no alcohol.”
“Okay, then,” said Scheer. “Changed my mind. I’ll have a vodka martini, very dry, two olives, and a beer chaser.”
Through her tight lips the waitress said, “You gonna let your friend drink that beer I can’t serve it to you.”
“They’re both for me,” Scheer assured her. He deepened his voice a little, opened the tone a little, injecting it with an Eastern or Ivy League authority whose influence did not entirely dissipate even all the way out here in the steak house on the plains. The waitress, resentful, complied.
She walked off and Scheer leaned toward me. He did his hick voice again. “Nothing wrong with that gal that a good poke in the hay barn wouldn’t fix. And you’re just the stud for the job.” He didn’t seem drunk, but this crudeness was new; he was a little less precise in his movements now, his voice louder. “Yeah,” said Scheer, “I think she’s sweet on you. You and Mayella could be happy together.” I was feeling the wine strongly, too, my head like a mirrored ball, flashing lights.
The waitress brought the drinks, setting them demonstratively on Scheer’s side of the table. As soon as she disappeared, he pushed the beer toward me and said, “There you go.”
“Thanks.” I drank the beer in gulps, pushing it back across the table whenever the waitress passed by. It was fun to be sneaking it like this.
But I was not unobserved. A man at the bar was watching me. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, he looked as though he disapproved. But then his face broke into a big, knowing smile. The smile made me uncomfortable and I looked away.
When we came out again, the sky was completely dark. Before leaving, Scheer opened the hatch of the Nova to get Franklin out. The old dog could no longer walk, and Scheer had to lift him bodily out of the car. “Let’s go, Franks,” Scheer said, gruffly affectionate, and with a lit cigarette between his teeth, angled up in a patrician manner not unlike that of Franklin Roosevelt himself, in Gucci loafers and sidevented, gold-hued tweed jacket, his strong polo player’s legs braced under the weight, he carried the aged beast into the weeds.
Before going back to the highway, he stopped at a convenience store to get more beer.
We drove for another hour or so. Scheer consumed many beers; I worked my way through one or two. I was not at all sober and feeling sleepy. I leaned against my door, blearily looking out. A long white car came alongside us. The driver looked at me, smiling, but I was already falling asleep.
Sometime later, Scheer shook me awake. “I’m too wrecked to drive. I’m pulling over.”
I didn’t object. Soon I saw hazy motel lights. Scheer left the car and returned with my room key. He led me to my room, carrying my suitcase, and opened the door for me. I went to the bed and collapsed.
My head was spinning. I managed to pull down the bedspread and get at the pillows.
“You gonna sleep in your clothes?” Scheer asked as if amused.
I felt his hand on my back, rubbing it. “You shouldn’t sleep in your clothes,” he said. He started to undress me, but I roused myself. “Just let me sleep,” I said.
Scheer bent closer. In a thick voice he said, “Your parents kick you out, Cal? Is that it?” He sounded suddenly very drunk, as if all the day’s and night’s drinking had finally hit him.
“I’m going to sleep,” I said.
“Come on,” whispered Scheer. “Let me take care of you.”
I curled up protectively, keeping my eyes closed. Scheer nuzzled me, but when I didn’t respond, he stopped. I heard him open the door and then close it behind him.
When I awoke again, it was early in the morning. Light was coming in the windows. And Scheer was right next to me. He was hugging me clumsily, his eyes squeezed shut. “Just wanna sleep here,” he said, slurring. “Just wanna sleep.” My shirt had been unbuttoned. Scheer was wearing only his underwear. The television was on, and there were empty beers on it.
Scheer clutched me, pressing his face into mine, making sounds. I tolerated this, feeling obliged for some reason. But when his drunken attentions became more avid, more targeted, I pushed him off me. He didn’t protest. He crumpled into a ball and quickly passed out.
I got up and went into the bathroom. For a long while I sat on the toilet lid, hugging my knees. When I peeked out again, Scheer was still sound asleep. There was no lock on the door, but I was desperate for a shower. I took a quick one, keeping the curtain open and my eyes on the door. Then I changed into a new shirt, put my suit back on, and let myself out of the room.
It was very early. No traffic was passing along the road. I walked away from the motel and sat on my Samsonite, waiting. Big open sky. A few birds in it. I was hungry again. My head hurt. I got out my wallet and counted my dwindling money. I contemplated calling home for the hundredth time. I started to cry but stopped myself. Then I heard a car coming. From the motel parking lot a white Lincoln Continental emerged. I put out my thumb. The car stopped alongside me and the power window slowly went down. At the wheel was the man from the restaurant the day before.
“Where you headed?”
That smile again. Like something bursting. “Well then, this is your lucky day. That’s where I’m headed, too.”
I hesitated only a moment. Then I opened the back door of the big car and slid my suitcase in. I didn’t have, at that point, much choice in the matter.