By Paul Rousseau
We were in my bedroom, side by side on the floor, the door closed. I was eight, he was thirteen.
“Do you think I’m a queer?” Jim asked.
“Nooo!” I said.
There was a stilted silence.
“I don’t really know what a queer is Jim. It’s something bad, isn’t it?”
“It’s when a boy likes a boy, not a girl.”
“Do you like boys Jim?”
His lips cut a wry, mischievous smile. “Do you think I’m a queer?”
“Jim, I don’t know, I don’t want to talk about this.”
Then, unexpectedly, he wrapped his fingers around my neck and squeezed. I couldn’t breathe, yet I didn’t resist. I glanced at his face; his eyes were feral, his teeth clenched firm. I became dizzy, and the room dwindled to black. Then he stopped. I awoke on the floor, his face staring down at me. We never spoke of the incident, not then, not ever. It was as if it never happened.
Although Jim was five years older than me, we were close friends. A strange arrangement, considering the difference in years and the social hierarchy of adolescence, yet we had a need of mutual wants: acceptance and friendship.
At school, we were both outcasts, estranged from our classmates. I had neither father nor mother—both died when I was quite young—and there was no clique for the parentless. Fathers worked, mothers stayed at home; it was the Saturday Evening Post family, but even more important, it was the social norm. No one knew what to say, so I was ignored and relegated to the borders of prepubescent obscurity. Jim, on the other hand, was marginalized for his mannerisms—my opinion. He seemed effeminate, and never evidenced any indication of a masculine compass. I think he was gay, or transgender, but it was 1960, and no one admitted to being gay, and transgender was yet to be a word.
We would speak on the phone most days, even in the days of party lines, when most phone lines were shared by two, three, even four families, or he’d walk the two blocks to my house and we’d go to the banks of the Great Miami River and sit and talk, or throw rocks in the water and watch the ripples dwindle to never, or play army or hide and seek, or search for the unknown and nameless along the shore. But when we were both sad, which seemed to be often, we’d just sit, without words, alone with our thoughts.
I wasn’t aware of the rumors until two male classmates, lingering in front of my house, laughed and pointed their fingers. “You’re a queer, you’re a queer. You and Jim are queers.” They walked towards me. “What do you and Jim do at the river? Kiss?”
My face burned red. I still didn’t know what queer meant, other than what Jim had told me, and inklings gathered from naïve playground chatter. I didn’t mind if Jim was queer, but I didn’t want anyone to think I was queer—whatever queer might be. I didn’t need to be exiled further. I ran inside the house, uncertain what to say or do, so I said nothing and did nothing. I never told Jim.
Jim turned eighteen. The Viet Nam debacle was beginning to escalate into an unending war. Not wanting to be drafted, Jim enlisted. He chose the Air Force; I think he thought it was the safest, with the least chance of direct combat. His departure for basic training was sad; I was suddenly alone. So was he.
I didn’t hear from him aside from a few letters which were dark and depressed. Then, one day, late afternoon, he called me on the phone. His voice was mournful.
“Hey, this is Jim.”
“Hey Jim, how are you doing? I miss you.”
“I miss you too.”
“Jim, you gonna be able to come home soon?”
“No, it’s going to be a while.”
He paused; I heard muffled sobs. “I really miss home, I just want to come home. I really want to come home. I’m so depressed.” He started to cry. I didn’t know what to say. I was too young to understand, too young to help.
Our phone call lasted only minutes. I was upset when we hung up, yet I told no one; my grandmother, who was dutied with raising me after the death of my parents, wouldn’t have understood.
Then, later that night, after everyone was asleep, Jim, in an apparent cloud of despair and loneliness, took a sheet, stepped up on a stool, and hung himself in the shower of the barracks. The “Why?” was never answered. Suicide doesn’t always allow the spade to turn over the soil of the unknown. Perhaps it was his sexual orientation, perhaps it was depression, perhaps it was both, perhaps it was neither. But regardless of the cause, there must have been a tiredness of life, with death the only option.
When my grandmother told me the following morning, I cried and cried until I squeezed all the salt from my body. Then I thought of the day Jim wrapped his fingers around my neck, and wondered if he was shrewdly observing the mode of his calculated death.
About the Author
Paul Rousseau is a semi-retired physician and writer, published in medical journals and a smattering of literary journals, including The Healing Muse, Blood and Thunder, Intima. A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Months To Years, The Pharos, Hektoen, Hospital Drive, JAMA, Annals of Internal Medicine, Canadian Medical Association Journal, Tendon, Cooweescoowee, and others. Currently working on a collection of essays. Lives in Charleston, SC, longs to return to the west. Lover of dogs.