A Bitch on a Mission
Behind my seat in the waiting room the cars sped down Broadway while the ocean poured out from the sky. It had been thirty minutes since the last patient was called and you could feel the anxiety boiling in the room. Everyone, including myself, was searching for someone to tell them that everything was going to be alright; except judging from the time on my Blackberry, it appeared that someone was undeniably out to lunch.
While the receptionist popped the foil on another pack of Dentyne Ice, I distracted myself with the latest issue of Details. Mark Ruffalo was on the cover and I was quite beside myself about it. Apart from a killer summer style section that featured an expose on faded denim and light blue polos, the issue also produced a controversial article entitled “Is Skim Milk Making you Fat?” The answer is much too troubling for me to reiterate here, but needless to say I did not finish the last sip on my non-fat caramel macchiato.
I sensed I was getting closer to digging up the root of my anxiety about Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but I still had a ways to go. Thanks to my cheese sandwich experience with Frederick Davenport, I had ruled out Meryl Streep as a primary suspect for the boils across my neck. The truth was that my fear of Breakfast with another man started long before I ever met the likes of Mr. Davenport. On our first date and subsequently the first time we went to third base, I remember the anxiety-ridden conversation that took place between us just as my jeans were about to pop:
“Do you think I should get tested before we throw the hot dogs on the barbeque?” I asked Frederick, hot and no doubt bothered.
“How many men have you slept with?”
“Zero I guess. But do hand jobs count?”
“You're telling me that you think you should get tested for giving another guy a five knuckle shuffle?”
“Well I didn’t use a glove.”
Why was I so terrified of sex? I was beginning to tire of this routine of going downtown with a boy only to wake up the next day and get on a bus downtown to the clinic. My other friends (gay, straight, imaginary) did not have this problem. They occupied their free time with all kinds of casual and pre-marital sex, and unlike me, did not wake up in the middle of the night convinced they were terminally ill. I was exhausted with myself and furious that I was still sitting here, in the exact same spot I was five years ago.
I smashed the copy of Details on to the floor and aroused the attention of everyone coughing around me. For a split second the room stopped as every patients' eyes fell on me. Silence ensued. The receptionist stopped chewing her gum, the Kerrisdale housewife stopped beating her knees and little Tommy stopped beating his block. The only person who didn’t flinch was the boy’s mother, who was in the seat beside me. I started to see a tear form in Tommy’s eyes and with a great big smile reached down to get the magazine on the floor. Rather than apologizing I pretended like nothing ever happened and carried on reading in silence.
It was then I realized that ever since I checked in, I had been asking myself the wrong question. All this time I was asking why I was so afraid of sex when really I should have been trying to figure out where I got this fear in the first place. It then dawned on me the answer was sitting right in my lap.
The fact there is a closet behind this photo is telling.I learned my sexual identity like everyone else. Except my education didn’t come from textbooks, parents, teachers, movie stars or close family friends. Long before I ever saw an episode of Queer as Folk or read between the lines of Oscar Wilde, I went to school to become a gay man with a single magazine: Out.
It was a sunny afternoon in September 2004 when I purchased my first copy of the gay lifestyle magazine. I can remember the transaction like it took place yesterday. I was nineteen years old and living in the nation’s capitol. I had accepted a full-time position packing gourmet fudge for my aunt’s dessert company, and jumped at the chance to get off the prairies. I went from bisexual to flaming as soon as I crossed the Manitoba border and never stepped foot in a box again (well almost).
That day I bought the magazine at the local bookstore I was nothing more than a gay baby, and my outfit was screaming proof. With a clearance-bin pashmina and polyester pants so tight they cut off any circulation below my waist, I made a b-line for the magazine rack. I was a bitch on a mission and nothing was going to stop me from learning how to be a succesful gay man. For years in Winnipeg, life in the closet had kept me miles away from any picture of a half-naked man that wasn’t on the cover of Men’s Health. But now that I was free, Meryl Streep knows I had to make up for lost time.
I flew passed the home and garden section before making a brief pit stop at fashion and finally reaching my final destination at gay and lesbian. There it was, standing eleven-inches tall and forty-eight pages wide, the magazine I had waited my entire adolescent life for. Its glossy cover shined in the flourescent light and blinded me from any other publication on the shelf. By force of habit I checked both ways and took a deep breath before I stepped closer to it. Slowly and with infinite grace, I lifted up my right hand and extended my index finger to touch it; but there was one major problem, I couldn't reach it.
I felt like Adam in Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; except with less muscle definition and a substantially bigger package. My Holy Grail was inconveniently displayed at the very back of the very top shelf and I was one pair of five-inch platforms short of getting my hands on it. I tried everything I could to get it down. I jumped, danced on my tippy-toes, and even tried using my pashmina as a lasso to wrangle it off the shelf. For a moment I even debated asking the sales-girl with the step ladder in the next aisle for help, but figured it was much more dramatic if I struggled to get it down myself. Just when I thought all hope was gone, an angel appeared in the form of six-foot tall woman with two inch heels and a neck like a giraffe.
“Oh my God I love your shoes!” I harked in front of her, which translated in gay morse code as “SOS!”
“Whatever,” she said.
Alright so maybe she wasn’t an angel as much as a total bitch except that didn’t matter because she was tall.
“I was wondering if you could get that magazine up there for me, the one with Billy Crudup on the cover?”
“Do I look like I work here?”
“Listen Nancy, I’ll get Billy up there for you on one condition.”
“What is that?” I gulped. There was no question this bitch was fierce.
“That terrible excuse for a scarf never finds its way wrapped around your neck again.”
With one tug, I unraveled the acrylic from around my neck while she brought the magazine down and placed it in my hand.
I was more excited than an eleven-year-old boy who'd just got his dirty fingernails on a stolen copy of Playboy. I looked up to thank the giant lady but she was already gone. Standing in the aisle, I tore through the pages of the magazine and soaked up every new bit of information I could. From designer watches to premium vodkas and weekend trips to Buenos Aires, it dawned on me that I was going to have to increase my credit limit before I could ever be like one of these men.
I was half-way through the issue when my fingers stopped on and advertisement that I had never seen before. It was laid out next to a five-page spread for Dolce & Gabanna and featured a photograph of a man on his mountain bike that looked like it was ripped out of a catalogue for J-Crew. The two pages that followed the photo were back-dropped by white and filled to the brim with small print. Unlike the other ads for sports cars and expensive colognes I was unsure what this company was trying to sell me that required such a high word count. Zooming in for a closer look, I panned my eyes across a compound word I had never seen before: anti-retroviral. The ad was for HIV medication.
“Oh yeah,” I said to myself, as if it just occurred to me I signed the lease on an apartment I couldn’t afford.
It was at that moment, I realized my life outside the closet was going to be just as fearful as it was fashionable. In every queer magazine I read after that (and wrote for) I became more and more afraid. Laid out next to every ad for a cruise-line or dating site, there was an even bigger public health warning. Whether it was for syphylis, chlamydia or HIV, it seemed there was a special infection for every man you could possibly go for coffee with. Seven years later, it is clearer to me now, in that first year out of the closet I learned how to fear sex before I ever knew what it meant to celebrate it.
I was brought back to reality by the site of Tommy’s father walking through the door. He couldn’t have been a day over twenty-seven and had the exact same face as his son. He leaned over to give his wife a kiss and it occurred to me that it was her all this time, and not her son, who was sick. I began to wonder whether she had a mental illness and if that was the reason she had not bothered to help her son match the wooden block to the correct hole.
The father kneeled down on the floor beside his son and with one soft movement, guided Tommy’s hand with the square block over to the right spot on the board. In an instant Tommy’s tiny fingers released their grip, and the wooden cube slid perfectly in to its home.
Returning home from Ottawa for the holidays. This was the last time I was ever in a box.I suddenly heard a man’s voice in my head and looked around the room to see who it could be. It played again and before I knew it I was sitting in the passenger seat of my father’s silver Hyundai Elantra. It was Christmas Eve and the two of us were driving to my Aunt’s house for dinner. Just days before I had returned home from Ottawa for the holidays and had come out to my parents the previous night. Bundled up for the cold in parkas and neck warmers the two of us sat in complete silence. The only sound in the car came from the hot air blasting through the vents. We stopped at a red light and with one line, my father gave me a birds and bees talk that I had blocked out of my mind until now.
“Whatever you do, Fox,” he said, “just don’t get AIDS.”
Suddenly it struck me I had reached the bottom of my fear.
Reaching this conclusion, I do not wish to say that it was ultimately a magazine or my father that was responsible for each one of my trips to the walk-in clinic. As much as there is a certain degree of logic to stress, for the most part anxiety is irrational. However, I do wish to suggest that be it religion, history, politics or culture itself - the formation of a healthy sexual identity for anyone in this day and age requires some degree of work. And in my case, several bottles of wine and years of healing.
“Rugged Fox,” the receptionist repeated, smacking her lips. "RUGGED FOX."
“Right here,” I said, putting myself back together long enough to follow her to another waiting room.
Ten minutes later the door knob sounded and Neil Patrick Harris walked through the door in Billabong shorts and a stethoscope.
“Well Mr. Fox,” he said, reviewing my chart. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Well Dr. Howser, I don’t know if you can help me. You see when I arrived here this morning I was convinced that Meryl Streep was punishing me for having Breakfast at Tiffany’s. As it went down last Monday night, I took home the Good Samaritan from the bar and woke up the next morning covered in boils. All was good until I started thinking really hard in the waiting room and realized Miss Streep was the least of my problems. Unless you have a couch I could lie on it would take like way too long for me to explain it to you here; but I’m afraid the rash on my neck is nothing a prescription for antibiotics could help. My unfortunate skin condition is the physical manifestation of latent sexual anxiety incurred by years of fabulous magazine subscriptions and my father’s untimely destruction of the birds and the bees. So, unless you can refer me to a good psychiatrist or prescribe me a lifetime’s worth of diazepam, I suggest we both go our separate ways and I will see you the next time I have my eggs scrambled by another man.”
“Could I at least take a look?” he said, putting my file folder down on the desk in the corner. I noticed that he stopped taking notes as soon as I mentioned Meryl Streep.
“Sure, but I don’t see how it could help.”
I pulled down my turtle neck so he could get a closer look and ten seconds later he whipped out a white pad of paper from his pocket.
“You have contact dermatitis and a possible staph infection,” he said.
“This Good Samaritan you spoke of, do you remember him having any kind of rash you may have come in contact with?”
“Well I was several Bombays in at the time, but I guess he may have had something on his chin... but he swore to me it wasn’t contagious.”
“Take this four times a day for the next ten days and it should clear up.”
I took the folded piece of paper from his hand and refused to believe that my problem was not as complicated as I thought.
"You mean to say that I am not psychologically damaged beyond repair?"
"Well I just met you but I don't think it would hurt to get outside your head for a little bit. You're on the Coast now, go spend day on the beach or something, relax."
I walked outside the clinic on to the sidewalk and opened up my umbrella. At Shoppers, I handed my prescription over to the pharmacist and breathed a deep sigh of relief. It was nice to know my problem could be solved with $55 and not a lifetime of psychotherapy.