Michael knew he was different. Unlike other kids, he loved the library. It was his safe place. At thirteen years old, Michael needed a safe place. Michael would rather spend his evenings alone pouring over the stacks of theater books than play with his few friends or even watch TV. Although there was a local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library only three blocks away, Michael’s favorite library was the classic and ornate marble and stone edifice that graced Grand Army Plaza just two or three bus rides away from his Canarsie home. The hushed marble lobby reminded him of Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. There were floors of rooms filled with books. There were microfilm machines that acted as time tunnels waiting to be accessed. All one needed was a card. And Michael had one of those, laminated and shiny in his pocket. The rectangular key to the kingdom.
But alas, it took buses and/or lifts from his Dad to get to Grand Army Plaza, making it a rare delicacy in the life of Michael. So, on those normal school nights, Michael would excuse himself after supper and go for a walk over “the hill” to the Canarsie branch of his library. “The hill” was an unpaved dirt road that went from 97th Street to Rockaway Parkway. When it snowed the kids used the hill to sled on. When there was no snow, it was just a dirty, muddy and scary hill to get over. There were seldom any people there and the bitter winter of 1971 made it even less populated than usual. Michael used to be scared to climb over the hill alone, but now that he was a teenager, he didn’t mind it one bit. For beyond the other side was where the modern one story chrome and plaster 1960s looking building stood. Nothing like the imposing Grand Army Plaza library with its Art Moderne curved front and imposing doors decorated with golden 3-D miniatures of characters from famous novels. Still, this library had a nice, if small, theater section, although some of the reference books could not be taken out. But books that could not be checked out were the ones Michael adored, since it gave him time to sit and read and memorize the facts of musicals gone by.
Each night after supper, Michael would excuse himself and go for a walk. A walk that led to the library four blocks away. He would turn left on Avenue J and walk toward the hill. Lately, that winter, Michael had the feeling that someone was following him and it made him nervous. But when he had turned around there was no one there. This feeling persisted for a week, until, when Michael turned there was a boy there.
The boy was smaller and thinner than Michael, who was not tall himself and tended toward an un-athletic pudginess. But as small and thin as the boy was, his very wiriness and sharp olive-skinned Italianate facial features seemed dangerous to Michael. In his thin, leather jacket with the turned-up collar, he seemed tough and ready to use his toughness for something that Michael could not fathom and didn’t want to know.
“Where ya goin’?” the boy threateningly asked as he stood between Michael and his destination. It was as if the boy were protecting his turf and that Michael had crossed some invisible line into enemy territory.
“Just walking,” answered Michael as nonchalantly as possible, as he started to walk again
“I seen ya walkin’ by here every night,” the boy said as he confidently walked backwards in front of Michael, not worrying about curbs or bumps in the sidewalk. “You must be goin’ somewhere.”
“Nah…just for a walk.”
And with that, Michael pulled his collar up and his stocking cap down and started to walk past the backward-walking boy. The boy followed so closely behind that Michael could feel his breath on his neck.
“Can’t you stop and talk?”
“It’s cold out,” Michael answered as he walked a little faster.
“I ain’t cold. It’s hot.”
Michael was getting scared now as the boy kept walking behind him, keeping only a tiny distance. He visualized the boy taking a stick and hitting him in the back of the head and as cold as it was out, he started to sweat. He wanted to lose the boy and not lead him to the library, where he was headed, so Michael took a left turn on 98th Street.
“This ain’t the way.”
Michael was startled.
“Why ya turnin’ here?” the boy demanded.
“There’s a reason.”
“I seen you at the school yard, ya know. Watchin’ me play handball.”
Michael felt sure that he had never seen this boy before that night, although it was, in fact, his habit to ride his bike past the handball courts of the schoolyard that sat right across the street from his house. And he did sometimes linger to have a look at the boys who knew how to slam the Spalding with their bare hands so that it bounced back with a heated ferocity. But he never thought anyone noticed.
“Did you know I saw ya?” the boy asked.
“No. How would I know? I never saw you.”
“Sure you did.”
Once more Michael dug his hands into his pockets and hunched his shoulders against the wind that whipped through 98th Street from the Bay. He took a deep breath and pushed ahead with more speed. Michael didn’t dare look back. He just trudged ahead to Avenue K. When he got to the corner he risked a glance behind him and was relieved that there was no one there. The boy must have lost interest and turned back to his own house, wherever that was. Maybe he came from the projects, Michael thought. The low income housing where low lifes let their kids walk the streets in thin jackets.
After a minute, Michael felt safe enough to not just turn for home, but to make the right turn and circle back to his destination: the library. Once there, Michael tried to concentrate on the musicals of 1951, for that was the Theatre World he found on the shelf. But Michael could only think of the tough boy and how he might be waiting outside for him when the library closed. Michael had a vision of being beaten up. He stayed till the last person left and then only went through the door when the librarian motioned to the large clock that it was time to leave. Michael warily went out the front door and gratefully saw no one there. To make himself feel better, he stopped at the Chinese take-out for some white rice with spicy sauce, which warmed his stomach and soothed his nerves as he walked home.
For the next few nights, Michael was a bit wary that the boy would show up again and he tried to walk as swiftly as possible to the library. He was relieved when the boy did not appear for a week or more. Then one dark, cold February night, there he was, just around the corner from 100th and J. He wore a no jacket this time and was in a tight white T-shirt that showed off his fledgling biceps.
“Out walkin’ again?”
Michael was startled and let out a little gasp.
“What’r ya screamin’ for?”
“I wasn’t,” replied Michael.
“Yeah,” the boy said without much expression, “you were.”
“You scared me.”
The boy smiled a sly smile and said, “I know.”
“How can you be out without a coat? It’s freezing,” Michael said trying not to stare at the boys chest which was more pronounced and bulging than it was the last time. Of course the last time, he was wearing a light leather jacket, but still Michael was impressed. He wanted to ask if his mother didn’t care, but he kept that question to himself.
“I don’t need no jacket. I got hot blood. Are you goin’ to the liberry again?”
Michael winced a bit at the boy’s pronunciation of “library.” The boy looked angry and spoke with a quiet intensity that seethed with anger.
“Don’t look at me like I’m dumb or some’in'”
Michael was suddenly feeling threatened again.
“Cause I ain’t dumb.”
“I didn’t say a word,” Michael protested holding his hands over his face, as if expecting to be hit.
“No, but I can read faces. And yours is very…condescending.”
Michael wondered how the boy even know that word at all. Then the boy went to scratch his head and his right bicep flexed. He noticed Michael looking at it and smiled.
“You like that?”
“God, you’re dumb. And don’t try to run away again.”
The word “run” reminded Michael of his father and the other day when he yelled at him in the street.
“I’m not running,” replied Michael to his Dad. “I’m skipping,”
“That’s worse,” his father replied.
This memory filled Michael with shame although he didn’t quite understand why. He just knew that his father thought him something “less” for skipping down the street and now this boy made him feel the a different kind of shame. Looking at the boy’s chest reminded Michael of when he was six or seven years old and would watch the big muscle men at the beach showing off. There was one guy whose chest was so big that it shook when he walked. Michael remembered calling him “Shakey.” But only to himself.
Now he was brought back to reality when the boy asked, “You never wanna know my name?”
Interestingly, Michael did not want to know the boy’s name, but also didn’t want to make more trouble. All he really wanted was for the boy to leave him alone. Alone was Michael’s favorite state. Alone with the history of musicals. The joy of Jule Styne and Comden and Green and Rodgers and Hammerstein. That was all Michael wanted.
Of course it was, thought Michael. Typical tough Italian name.
“Like in West Side Story,” the boy went on.
Now Michael was astonished and it showed in his soft face.
“You thought I didn’t know stuff like that, didn’ ya?”
Tony laughed long and loud and as his muscles contracted, he seemed to be outgrowing his tight white t-shirt with every guffaw. Michael felt that sensation rising up to from his chest to his face again. The hot shame of something he didn’t understand. The feeling of being something less.
“Take me with you to the liberry,” Tony demanded.
“Is it your secret place?”
“Yeah. It is.”
Michael started to walk again toward the hill that needed to be crossed as Tony followed.
“Nobody knows where you go at night, right?”
“Then it’s your secret place.”
Michael had to concede the logic, but it made him uncomfortable all the same.
As they began crossing the hill which was slippery with icy mud, Tony asked, “What do they got there…in that liberry?”
Since Tony was still behind Michael, Michael thought it was safe to roll his eyes at that ridiculous question. But apparently Tony could see right through from the back of Michael’s head.
“I told ya not to make faces at me. I ain’t dumb.”
And with that Tony smacked the back of Michael’s head, making him lose his balance on the ice and sending him slipping and sliding and finally Michael fell on his ample behind. Michael moaned in pain and then looked up at Tony above him who was smirking and about to break out with laughter.
“That was funny,” Tony said through his almost girlish giggles.
“No, it wasn’t.
“Yeah…yeah , it was.”
Michael tried to get up, but the ice made it difficult and he thought he might cry. Before he could figure out what to do next, Tony was crouched beside him and had his strong hands under Michael’s armpits, lifting him with ease from the ground. As they stood facing each other at the top of the hill, they were so close that Michael could feel Tony’s breath on his face. Michael wished he had brushed his teeth before leaving home. He was sure his breath still smelled of the burned chicken legs that he ate tonight. He looked at Tony’s face and saw something in his eyes he had never seen before in the boy: fear. Michael looked down at the jacket-less boy and saw that he was shivering. Tony’s hands were still there under Michael’s arms and flexed as they were, Michael could see that there was goose flesh all over them, so cold was it outside. Michael put his hands on Tony’s arms, as much to warm him as to feel the strength and power of them. As Michael looked down at the boy’s face he could see a tear forming in each of his eyes.
In what seemed like a flash of lightning, Tony took the plunge and unzipped Michael’s coat and put his arms around him, pushing in as close as he could and kissing him hard on the mouth. Michael felt his lips tingle with pain as Tony bit them. He was both terrified and thrilled, but kissed Tony back as if he had known all along that this would happen.
Michael could feel how cold Tony was and tried to keep the boy warm by wrapping both his coat and his arms around Tony, pulling him in closer and inside his own sheltering warmth. As the two boys practically melted into the other on the top of that icy hill, they didn’t even notice that a heavy snowfall was enveloping them and if anyone was watching they would think these two boys were frozen in time inside a snowglobe. Just as the snow seemed to fall in buckets, they both suddenly lost their footing and slipped and fell inside of Michael’s coat. They rolled down the other side of the hill toward Rockaway Parkway. As they tumbled all the way down, neither of them would give up the other’s mouth. Michael just closed his eyes and pretended he was dreaming. After all, wasn’t he? Finally, still lip-locked, they rolled to the bottom of the hill to the sidewalk across the street from the library where the Rockaway Parkway bus to the train station stopped. They were giddy with laughter now and Michael’s stomach hurt. He felt Tony let go of him and roll out of the coat altogether.
“Come on! Get up! You can’t lay around forever,” Tony said through his laughter. But Michael felt drunk, or what he thought being drunk felt like, and he didn’t want to get up or even open his eyes.
Tony’s voice mumbled something in the distance. It was clear he was not nearby anymore. The next thing Michael heard was the honk of a bus and the distinctive sound of the air brake. People were sure to be either getting on or off the bus and ruin the dream, so Michael, still lying at the bottom of the hill, kept his eyes firmly shut. Finally, the sounds of the bus doors and the motor starting again signaled that the bus was leaving. Michael opened one eye to make sure.
“Oh good. It’s gone.”
Michael drew himself up to his knees, zipped up his coat against the sharp wind of the Canarsie Bay and looked around for Tony. Michael’s body, which was light as a feather just minutes ago, felt like lead now, but using all his strength, he pulled himself up. He realized he was hard and tried to push his penis down in his pants.
“Hello?,” Michael called out, but there was no answer.
“Are you hiding? Tony?”
This was the first time that Michael had spoken his name and it sounded silly, as if he were Maria in West Side Story. He called it out again, this time singing it with a slight Puerto Rican accent, just to try on the role.
But Tony was not there. The snow had stopped falling from the sky and the streets resembled that eerily empty schoolyard at the end of the film of West Side Story, when Tony was crying out for Maria. Except this time, Michael was calling for Tony. Suddenly Michael thought that Tony might have gotten on that Rockaway Parkway bus and zoomed away.
But why? Where would he be going? Did he have to get home? Where did he live anyway? Michael was suddenly confused and then scared. And paranoid. Was this some kind of game? Was he being played? Shit! Was someone taking pictures? Would they tell his parents? Michael’s mind raced to all the worst places now. To still his red hot fear, he decided that he had been hallucinating. Nothing really happened, right? He fell on the ice and dreamed the kiss. Yes. He dreamed it all, he decided.
The light changed and Michael now had to decide what to do next. Should he climb back over the icy hill and go back home? Would Tony be waiting on the other side?
No, that wasn’t real. Tony wasn’t real.
The walk signal told him what to do: cross Rockaway Parkway and head to the safe, warm library, where he could research 1956, his favorite year. The year of My Fair Lady and The Most Happy Fella and Candide and Happy Hunting. As he pulled the Theatre World for 1956 off the shelf, Michael decided that he was safer in the past.
And there Michael stayed. Steeped in 1956, 1957, 1958… he pushed away all thought of that freezing night when he rolled off the hill with a boy inside his winter coat.
For months after, Michael continued to trudge over the hill to his secret place, always looking behind him, but with longing replacing fear. Tony was never there. Eventually the borough of Brooklyn saw fit to pave the hill and civilize one of the last raw patches in the neighborhood. No more did the snow and ice collect on top of the dirt. Now the sanitation department cleared away winter as quickly as it could fall. No one slipped and slid and eventually Avenue J and Rockaway Parkway stopped being called “the hill.”
Michael grew away from the hill as well. When he matriculated from Junior to Senior High, he discovered the subway and flew over a different hill to a more secret place. A place where men stood in darkened rooms staring at each other, but seldom spoke. Another hill of longing to cross over.
Even before Michael moved away from home, he graduated to even darker rooms where the hands and mouths of strangers created a new kind of conversation without words. Through all the emotionless, but oddly satisfying nights, Michael still hoped for some kind of replay of that time on the hill. Sometimes, wrapped and twisted in the bedclothes with tonight’s “friend du jour,” as he liked to call them, (so much more poetic than “trick”) he could imagine that he was lip locked and caught in the magic winter coat falling…falling…falling, with no concern of where he would land. Then the dawn would bring coffee and regrets and nothing to say, and Michael would start the search all over again. Eventually, Michael deserted Brooklyn and found friends and lovers and forgot all about that freezing hot night going over the hill. Reality replaced the dream and a kind of self-imposed amnesia came over him.
Norman was reality. Norman and Michael met while walking their dogs and they dated for a several months. Although they enjoyed each other physically, Michael always felt a slight disappointment when it was over. Was he still longing for that first flush of desire? Could it ever be recaptured? Was he being totally unrealistic? These questions plagued Michael and helped to ruin the relationship, which, after a year, both men put on hold.
It was a cold snowy night when Michael returned to his Brooklyn home to help his sister pack up their late father’s meager belongings and ship them off to their Aunt in Florida (“God’s Waiting Room,” Michael called it). What their Floridian Aunt would do with all those winter coats and mufflers and gloves, Michael could not fathom, but she wanted them. Michael also had not fathomed this weather. He dressed as he loved to dress, for Spring or Summer. In the hothouse of Manhattan where he went from bar to restaurant to bar to home, this costume always worked. But here in Brooklyn, near the icy Canarsie Bay, Michael, in his stylish but thin cashmere sweater, was freezing. As he hugged himself to protect his body from the Rockaway Parkway wind, he noticed that the library was gone and replaced by a Dress Barn. His sister, Faith, had told him about the changes in the old neighborhood, but he had stayed away as much as possible and this was the first time he saw it for himself.
Michael waited for the walk sign to signal he could cross Rockaway Parkway, he turned to see a small, scrawny and wizened homeless man huddled against the wind in a corner between the old Chinese take-out and the used-to-be library. The man, who was waking from a snooze, was dressed in soft chinos and a stained, yellowing wife beater, covered by a bulky parka. The coat was open and Michael could see the remnants of what might have once been a worked-out body. A flicker of recognition crossed both men’s faces. Was it the old man who used to beg for pennies at the subway? Michael could not stop staring and the man noticed and rose from the sidewalk approaching a frozen Michael.
Michael was unreasonably afraid and started to walk away. The old man followed. Michael was really scared now and picked up the pace finally getting to what used to be called “the Hill.” He turned back to see if he had lost the old man and didn’t notice the patch of ice. He was unaware of losing his footing until he was on the ground.
The man stood over him and laughed.
“It’s not funny.”
“Yeah…yeah , it is.”
As that girly giggly laugh peeled out over Avenue J, Michael suddenly knew who this was.
And in one swoop, the old man wrapping both his coat and his arms around Michael, pulling him in closer and inside his own sheltering warmth. Could this really be happening, thought Michael. Am I still thirteen? Just like those decades before, both men kissed deeply and passionately. But this time they did not lose their footing, nor did they slip and fall inside of Tony’s coat. With no hill anymore to roll down the kiss was just a ghost of what it had been. Michael was the first to break free. Tony, like some vampire, didn’t want to let go and Michael had to wriggle out of the coat.
Michael stared at Tony who was not Tony anymore, but a remnant of the past. In a flash he realized that he had always idealized this moment and kept it wrapped up in wool in a velvet box deep in his secret place. And how he longed to relive it. He rejected how many men because of his longing for this secret place, for the over the hill rapture? But now that he did relive it, he knew he was free. Free of the coat. Free of the falling, free of the hill… Free of the illusion that nothing would ever be better.
“Can you spare a buck?” the former Tony whined.
Michael unhesitatingly took a bill from his wallet and gave it to the man.
“Here’s ten. And thank you.”
Tony looked confused, but took the money, giggled and started walking away. A light snow began to fall as Michael took one more look at his past, pulled up his collar against the sudden gust of wind and started to walk briskly toward East 100th Street, and away from The Hill.