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Bruce Bromley: Unschooling

Nearly halfway to fourteen and I've slept with more men than my parents Pat and Steve would ever care to count. I know them by the names in my head, where the safety I can sometimes make happen looks like a sort of glow. Outside, there are the Mom and Dad who get loud at breakfast, when my younger brother Michael shivers over the gallon of juice that's an orange gush on the floor. And at night, when the Dewars bottle has nothing more to give, Dad's fists are another kind of loud. Mom stands off to the side, her lips just about to move, and I'm the fairy son that Dad calls me, landing on the living room rug as though I love it and won't let go. Otherwise, they're mostly not around. If Steve sees me as the hatch he needs to break through in order to arrive at something better on the other side, I don't know where the ship is or who captains it. But I can raise my eyes and scratch at heat in the men who pause though they mean to go on walking – and watch those fires start. Love in an Amagansett cottage rental. In a car under radio towers and a moon in the middle of going elsewhere. On East Hampton's gay nude beach, on its sun-smacked dunes, hours before the light slumps down and the high school jocks with their baseball bats come out, ready for the men who stayed too late. Not one cop within calling distance or on the clock, anyway. In a world that doesn't want me, I'm wanted by the men I choose. And I know their names.

I can't tell Pat and Steve that the cottage rental has a crab apple tree whose name someone will teach me, that under it Stephen and I swap spit. How this busy slosh of sound must be what kissing is. In the wet we made on sheets his mother bought him, Stephen watches me half-sleeping, a little before the sun comes back and he drives me home. He sucked copies of his lips up and down my neck, which Pat and Steve don't comment on at breakfast. I can't tell them that Brian was on top of me in the steam room of the car his father loaned him, when I saw waves curl from one radio tower to another. Or how Brian looks at me with the warmth of home in his eyes, for a while. They can't know that once Burton and I sling our goop; that dune sand sticks to my butt and inches up my back, as if it wanted to walk with me, as if that were possible. Their not knowing will keep me where they believe they've got me. Until it won't.

I'm thinking sideways about my older brother and sister. They got out sooner than they'd ever hoped for, though their release gave Pat and Steve less to manage or to fail at managing, and that was what their freedom meant. Bundling what they couldn't let go of, they reached the city, their separate apartments, and stopped. An urgent exit took all the energy they knew how to use. When they imagine me and the men whose names they don't recall, they see me speared by a sudden knife and lumped among sheets or on a side road where a few streetlights fizzle, yielding to the dark that was there first. That image must be the reason for what Steve calls this necessary conference. On their bed, Pat seems to listen to advice from the headboard: stretch your spine against me, and nothing can touch you. Steve's fist aims at my chin; my right forearm punches it away. His insisting that this is a small town, so watch out, hovers in the room when he's gone. I can audition for an apprenticeship with the Yale Repertory Company in summer residence at the John Drew Theatre, even if Pat and Steve instruct me that the stage will always be a girl's game, and I say yes to the job. I wrangle with hammers and nails and sets and will dance in the last scene of Terrence McNally's Bad Habits, our season's closing play, and spend the money I earn on skin-revealing clothes at the Mad Boy shop in town. I carry them on the body that my parents made. What I can't do is buck Pat taking me for a week to the hotel at One Fifth Avenue, since Steve intends me to be normalised. He pinpoints the city as the location for that process. I don't know how normalising and naturalising differ, except that the normal and the natural must be entangled in a war. If you could swab away the unacceptable bits – the clothes, the crotch friction between men that's a route to joy – would you still be there? Or is that what normalising does?

After dinner at the end of our first day, Pat's on her twin bed, shaping cuticles, while the TV blurts out the visual mess it's there for. My head replays how I stole a pen from the reception desk with the hotel's name on a gold ring around its middle, how I climbed the stairway's long curves to the top floor and saw myself standing on the sky, so that what's below became a strange place, no longer a given, the sky my upholder, everyone's upholder, at least until I left the roof and went down. I notice the vanity where Pat's arranged her creams and hair spray and brushes and eye make-up. They sit before the vanity's three mirrors through which she sustains the image she's been trained to be, that she must be. It's the only control made available to her, and it blurs anything she understands as unattached to it. So this is the norming that Pat and Steve wanted, this being stuffed with words that huddle in the mouth, as our room goes sharp pink and a Pepto Bismol ad flushes across the screen. A woman with Pat's tightly permed hair spoons goo into the mouth of a husband who doesn't whack her. There's a moment in Dracula when Bela Lugosi walks on pavement among men in tweed and thick shoes, since it's about to rain. He's this new thing they're no good at registering: his cape's black gleam, that top hat an extension of the dark hair, his eyes reading frequencies because, for him, they're visible. Behind him, the shop window and a mirror on the wall adjacent to it refuse to hold him. The beautiful Count, this Bela whose liberty will always be: no reflection. But if mirrors refuse you, are you a who or a what? Doesn't the power to ask that question assume its answer?

Everything seems to be under water in my aunt's house on Washington Square North, an effect toiled at by her designer, according to instructions: Prussian blue, lavender, navy on the linen-covered sofas and chairs, mixed with so much white that each colour softens in a slow dissolve, between one blink and another. Pat's sister, Joan, her name a test for those uninformed that her parents insisted it should be said in two syllables. She meets misnaming by slamming down the gateway of her face and appreciates this coded availability, this correct pronunciation that identifies who ought to be let in or kept outside. I'm the what centred at the far end of Aunt Joan's dining room, encircled by women whose husbands organise what they may and may not do, their assent clarifying the who they are, their places in the pattern. We sit before windows the length of Steve's body. Trees scrape against the glass, their leaves blanched by heat that the air conditioning shuts out. My shirtsleeve slides up and shows the red that Steve pounded there, every eye pointed at my forearm while the mouths below go on about the distant pasts these women share. Avice and Fanny and Joan and Pat, maintained by men who demand – through them – that I consent to being a boy worthy of their acknowledgment, the one who submits to retraining. But their silence about the boy I am, the silence of too many others, is the hush that makes bruises and jocks with bats and the off duty cops who join them real. In what she calls the vestibule, Joan notes my march to a different drummer, though I see no parade, hear no pumping drums, and I'm no marcher. Beyond the Park's archway, through its portal, I'm among my sweat-gleaming kind. We chant about standing and walking and living in a world where we can't be swatted down. We know this move to claim the who you are must be the noise that affirms all of it.

I spin my bike a few months later on side roads where the boundaries between East Hampton and Amagansett are tough to read, those boundaries a story stretched across signs, not the ground. I've wheeled under sycamores, their leaf-tips gone amber at autumn's great dial down. Dr. McKenzie leaves her front door open, as usual, so inside and out commingle in a sheen. We're in her office/home, and she's the therapist Steve hired to cure me of a disease I never had. She describes her single session with Pat and Steve, which they resisted but showed up for. Dr. McKenzie advised them that a fist will always be thwarted by the boy who rises in the face of it. She asked Steve to consider therapy. He thumped both arms across her desk and pushed Pat through the doorway. That bill, I learn, will not be paid. I'm in high school, the youngest dancer in the new John Drew Theatre dance troupe, ready to tour Long Island's underfunded schools where the arts are scanty though hungered for. I live with our assistant stage manager. Leslie smells like nutmeg, and it breathes through her skin on the sheets of our bed. Our home's the studio on her parents' property, near this ocean that never stops. When I called Pat and Steve to say I won't be coming back, static on the line was the little they felt inclined to give. Dr. McKenzie and I look at the companionship of a family that kills and at what I know with Leslie, which grows as bodies do, the ones that stay alive. I'm in a present that doesn't reject my yearning for the men I've had or limit a future I can't yet foresee. Dr. McKenzie shakes her silver hair, while I linger on the kindness of her mouth. I'm about to walk into the glow that's outside, now. She hopes I feel unshamed by sleeping with my sex. But shame belongs to those who schooled me in their requirements.

And they were never mine.

Bruce Bromley is the author of Making Figures: Reimagining Body, Sound, and Image in a World That Is Not for Us (Dalkey Archive Press, 2014); The Life in the Sky Comes Down: Essays, Stories, Essay/Stories (Backlash Press, 2017), nominated for the 2018 Victoria & Albert Best Illustrated Book Award; and Guesting: Essays, Essay/Stories (Understory Books, 2022). His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Out Magazine; A & U: America's AIDS Magazine; Open Democracy; Gargoyle Magazine; Fogged Clarity: An Arts Review; Environmental Philosophy; 3:AM Magazine; Cleaver Magazine; Entropy Magazine; The Nervous Breakdown, One Hand Clapping and elsewhere. He has performed his music and poetry throughout the U.S. and Europe. He teaches writing at New York University, where he won the Golden Dozen Award for teaching excellence.


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