Sometimes there’s more to see than what’s there.
Some kids have a harder time in childhood than others. Lots of reasons for that, of course. But if you’re one of the ones who has had to tiptoe precariously through those early years, one thing that can help is to know that life is lived in stages, and just because one stage isn’t really all that wonderful, you can’t assume the next one will bring the same burdens. The one constant in life is that things are constantly changing. The way they are in one stage does not foretell how they’ll be in the next.
By the time I was six, I’d already begun to show some aptitude for drawing. My friends at school were still using coloring books and sometimes managing to stay inside the lines. I used blank pieces of paper, and what I saw in my imagination I could reproduce pretty well with crayons or pencils. Best of all, I kept improving as I got older.
But one evening back then, I was working at home on something that was turning out to be quite exceptional, especially for someone my age. I was using a Number 1 soft pencil and doing a picture from memory of Mom and Dad sitting on the old porch swing we had, both looking out at the yard, both with far-off expressions. Dad had his pipe in his hand but hadn’t lit it. Mom didn’t much like that pipe—she wrinkled her nose at the smell—but she never voiced anything. Dad seemed to understand and deferred to her tacit feelings. He’d light it when she went inside for the evening. Till then, he’d simply hold it.
In my mind, I was labeling the picture Delayed Gratification. Well, not really. I was six and didn’t know there was a name for what I was seeing, but I felt it. The drawing teachers I’d have over the years would all remark that I had an unusual sensitivity for my age. Perhaps that’s why I could sense a feeling I’d not had much experience with.
You have choices when you’re drawing, just like you do in any creative activity. I made one with that drawing that was probably precocious. Somehow, some way, I was able to know that I shouldn’t emphasize the pipe in the picture. Somehow I knew subtlety was best, that I should simply let that pipe, held casually in Dad’s hand, speak for itself to anyone who stared at the picture long enough and thought hard enough about what they were seeing. Hard enough to realize that what was there in that picture—what they were seeing represented in that unlit pipe—was love.
I smudged some of the background I’d drawn, blurring the images and taking the focus away from the trees and bushes and sidewalk and fire hydrant and old car parked next door and forcing it onto the two people on the swing and especially that pipe. I accented it by making a bright reflection off the pipe’s bowl.
Mom and Dad were done well enough that they looked like themselves; their eyes showed their thoughts. It was the best picture I’d ever drawn, and I was exceptionally proud of it.
I finished it while sitting at my desk in the room I shared with Teddy. I wasn’t supposed to call him that any longer. He was nine now and wanted to be called Ted. I tried to remember, but it was difficult. He’d remind me if I forgot, though. He’d hit me in the shoulder to encourage me to remember. Every. Single. Time.
I studied the picture and decided it was done. I got up, and Teddy walked into the room, taking his shirt off, getting ready for his nightly shower.
“Look,” I said, and even I could hear the pride in my voice. Maybe he could, too. I held out the picture to him, and he dropped his shirt on the floor before taking it. He studied it, took some time doing it, then said, “It’s crap,” and tore it in half, twice. Then he finished undressing.
I was six. That was the best thing I’d ever drawn, and I’d worked hard getting it just right. I began crying, then wailing. Mom came in to see what was up, and I couldn’t speak. I’d dropped to the floor and was lying there, curled up, weeping. She asked what was the matter, and I managed to collect the four torn pieces of the drawing and handed them to her. By then, Teddy was long gone, and I could hear the water running in the bathroom.
She looked at the papers in her hand, and I saw sadness in her eyes. Seeing that, knowing I could draw that expression, thinking about how to do it, remembering how the lines on her face revealed what she was feeling, made me stop crying. She looked down at me, then shook her head and walked out of the room, still holding the papers.
I could hear the sound of her voice out in the living room and guessed she was speaking to Dad.
That night, Teddy was moved into the spare bedroom. Dad spent a lot of time talking to him first, but I was in my room with Mom, and the door was closed, so I never knew what was said. She was gathering his things and chatting with me, and some of what I’d seen in her eyes was what I now heard in her voice.
The spare room was much smaller than our shared room. But from then on, that was his room. We never shared a bedroom after that, and I had the larger one. That didn’t make sense to me, but that was how it was.
It was a long time till the hatred I felt for Teddy faded, before it again became love. I was disillusioned at the time he’d torn up that picture. I felt what he’d done was out of pure meanness, and it’s hard to feel love for someone who’s mean, someone who has intentionally destroyed something you’d worked hard on and were proud of. Being so dismissive of my art was being dismissive of me, and that’s hard to swallow when you’re six. Maybe at most any age.
It never occurred to me that he could have done it out of jealousy. Him, jealous of me? When he was nine and I was six? No way. He was larger than life to me, and I was still practically nothing.
When I was 14, life was much harder than when I was still in elementary school. I was effeminate, and that can be pretty darn awful for a 14-year-old boy. I wasn’t treated well at school, and that increased my natural shyness a hundred-fold. I became reclusive, silent, as much of a nonentity at school as it was possible to be. At home, I was accepted for who I was and what I could do. I played the piano, I helped Mom cook, and of course I never stopped drawing.
Mom had signed me up for a night class in drawing at the local college. She drove me there, waited, and drove me home from the classes, twice a week. When you’re a kid, you don’t realize how special that is. You take things like that for granted. But at 14, you’re not really a kid any longer. You’re more aware of other people. And I knew what she was doing for me was above and beyond. I let her know how much I appreciated what she was doing, and how much it meant to me. She took my hand and squeezed it, looking me in the eyes. I tried to meet hers. I didn’t look many people in the eyes. Look people in the eyes, they noticed you, and nothing good ever came of that.
I loved those classes. The instructor, an older woman, seemed to spend more time with me than with the others in the class. It was a mixed group. I was the youngest, and the oldest looked to me to be ancient but may well only have been in her sixties. I had no idea, really. There were 12 of us, and most of them were just passing time there, doing something they liked but weren’t much good at. Maybe that’s why Mrs. Prescott spent more time with me.
Those classes were great. I didn’t feel any of the tension or fear or ridicule that I felt as a freshman at high school, where everything was new to me. That school was a much bigger place than my middle school had been, and almost all the kids were bigger than I was. Plus, I had that effeminate thing going on.
Things were pretty bad early in the year. I was getting a lot of comments and even some rough treatment. I came home one day with bruises on my face and a puffy lip, and Ted asked what had happened.
“Mark George and Larry Atkins. That’s what happened.”
My relationship with Ted was probably what it was with many brothers. He was a senior; he had his own life. We were living in the same house, but there wasn’t much closeness between us. We were so different. He was an athlete who played on the soccer team in the fall and the tennis team in the spring. He had a girlfriend and spent a lot of time at her house. He had little interest in and no involvement with me.
I had a girl who was a friend, but certainly no girlfriend. I wasn’t built that way. I was clumsy and had no interest in sports. I hated gym class but had to participate. Fortunately, the teacher didn’t allow anything to happen to kids like me. Even in the locker room. He appointed monitors, and they kept people like me safe.
But in the halls, in the cafeteria, it was every man for himself. I wasn’t really a man, so all I could do was try to keep a low profile and not be noticed. I hung with other kids like me. There were a few—not gay kids, but the types who got picked on and couldn’t respond. We did our best to survive.
“They’re sophomores, aren’t they?” Ted was studying my face.
“So what happened?”
“They make fun of me a lot. Today, they caught me walking home. They tore up what drawings I had in my backpack, and when I yelled at them, Mark hit me, and then Larry did, and they laughed when I fell down. Then they high-fived each other and walked off.”
“They tore up your drawings?”
I nodded and looked down. I couldn’t help but remember he’d done the same thing once, long ago. We’d never spoken about that.
“I’ll get some ice for you,” he said. “Are you hurt anywhere else?”
I nodded. “Mark kicked me when I was down. In the ribs. It hurts, but I don’t think any of them are broken.”
“Let me see,” he said—in a way that I couldn’t refuse. It embarrassed me to show anyone my skinny body. He hadn’t seen me undressed in years. He had no idea what my body looked like. But I pulled up my shirt, and he studied my side. All my ribs stood out clearly. I didn’t have much meat on my bones to protect them.
He winced, pulling in his lips, then went into the kitchen to get me some ice.
I was better in the morning and walked to school as usual with Mary Lynn, a girl who lived a couple of houses down from us—about the best friend I had. When we got to school, I could see a whole group of kids gathered on the lawn. Right away, I thought ‘fight’ and kept walking, not wanting to be anywhere near other boys when their testosterone was raging, but Mary Lynn grabbed my arm and pulled me with her, saying she wanted to see who it was. She was bigger than I was and had strong hands; I went with her. I always felt a little safer when we were together.
There was room enough with all the kids on the lawn to see what was going on. I got a real surprise. Ted was there, and he had Mark and Larry with him. He was holding each of them with a hand around the backs of their necks, pinching hard into the sides. He was shouting at them, even though he was about two inches from their ears. He was telling them that they were going to apologize to me. That they would never, ever mess with me again. Then he looked up at the crowd, which was about two-thirds boys, and said the same to them. No one would mess with me or he’d tear them new assholes. I blushed when I heard that.
Then Ted saw me and yelled for me to walk over there to where he was. Reluctantly, with my heart suddenly racing, I did. When I was there in front of him, he spoke to Mark and Larry.
“Apologize to him—and mean it,” he shouted, and he must have squeezed the sides of their necks harder because I could suddenly see real pain in their faces. Ted didn’t ease up even as they started making noises, and they both dropped to their knees.
“Apologize,” he repeated, and they both spoke then, apologizing.
“Are you ever going to do that again?” Ted asked, and they both shook their heads as well as they could.
He let go of them, and they both stood up. When they did, Ted swung a fist, hard, and hit Mark directly in the stomach. Mark’s eyes opened wide, and he sank back to his knees, then suddenly barfed up his breakfast.
Ted sank back down next to him, and in a soft voice that only Mark and I could hear, said, “You kick him again, I’ll kill you. You touch him again, I’ll break your arms. You leave him alone. You don’t even talk about him. You hear me?”
Mark nodded. Ted stood up, then came to me and put his arm around my shoulders, and we walked into school like that—Ted with his arm around my shoulders, Mary Lynn on the other side.
When we were in school, Ted took his arm back and stood in front of me. “It was years ago, but I’m so sorry about your drawing. I’ve always been ashamed about what I did,” he said, and I could see he meant it. It was eight years later, but he remembered. I wondered how many times he’d thought about that. He reached out and grabbed my shoulder and squeezed it gently. Then he turned and walked away. Things got a little better in school after that. I was totally ignored, which was a great improvement. I was allowed to stay in the shell I’d built around myself without any reason to leave it.
When I was sixteen, Mrs. Prescott got me into a class where the students were college kids, and they were drawing objects. Still lifes. And sometimes people. Nudes.
I was embarrassed but also challenged. Drawing nudes wasn’t easy, and the first ones I did were pretty dreadful. Hands were especially difficult—getting the proportions just right and lifelike. But I got better with practice. Mrs. Prescott still spent time with me, but not extra time. She said I had all the talent in the world, and all I had to do was keep at it, keep working, keep learning, and I’d continue to improve. She said my eye was as good as anyone she’d ever known.
Then one evening I came in to find our subject that night would be a boy. He was about my age—maybe even a little younger. Maybe it was because of his age, but he wasn’t completely nude. Well, he was, actually, but he had a loose drape that hid one hip and the important stuff, leaving the other side entirely uncovered.
I guessed he’d done this before because he didn’t look even slightly embarrassed. He had a straightforward expression on his face, really not much of an expression at all. No embarrassment, no boredom, no enigmatic smile, just calm awareness and nothing else. He wasn’t beautiful in the classic sense. But he was striking. He had olive-toned skin, a full head of curly black hair with wisps partly covering his ears, a prominent straight nose, full lips, large dark eyes that looked as if they could be expressive but now weren’t. It caught my attention immediately that this boy was built quite a bit like I was. He was so slender that his ribs showed. He wasn’t exactly delicate, but the muscles in his arms weren’t developed at all, and his shoulders weren’t broad.
Looking at everything other than his face was a lot like looking in a mirror.
My easel was right in the center of the bunch of them. Where I was set up happened to be just where his eyes fell. When I was staring at him before I picked up my charcoal, I saw his eyes change from a blank stare that saw nothing to briefly focus on mine. They held for a second or two, then went back to being sightless.
I spent the full time we had making sketch after sketch of him. I’d started in charcoal, a medium I was just getting into, but quickly switched to what I did best: pencil. I had a whole set of drawing pencils of different thickness and hardness, and I used a great variety of them for my sketches.
Mrs. Prescott came by often and watched, then walked off without comment. I was making my final sketch of the class the last time she happened by; I was sketching him as I envisioned he would look without the drape. I may have blushed but continued drawing. When I looked up from my easel, the boy’s eyes were briefly focused on me again. They’d done that from time to time while I was working.
My mom wasn’t driving me any longer. I had a powered scooter now, a moped, and was licensed to drive it. I had a leather portfolio case that I used for transporting my drawings. It had a strap that I slung over my shoulder when I was on the moped. That night when class was over, I put on my jacket, slipped all my sketches into my case, then walked out into the cool night. I walked to my moped, unlocked the chain and was wheeling it out into the road when someone spoke.
“What’s your name?” I turned to see the boy who’d posed for us. “Mine’s Neil.”
“Avery,” I said, and I felt my heart start to pound heavily.
“Hi, Avery.” He didn’t have the presence here, outside, that he’d had on the stand. I’d felt his confidence then. I didn’t feel it now. Now I felt his nervousness.
“Hi,” I answered, and then had no idea what else to say. Talking to strangers, talking to anyone, really, wasn’t my best thing.
“Uh,” he said after a pause, apparently feeling as shy as I was, “could I, uh, maybe, see what you drew? I’ve never asked anyone that before. But I’ve never posed before someone my age before, either.” Then he looked down, not meeting my eyes.
Maybe that’s why I opened my case and pulled out the papers I’d tucked inside, because he was no more aggressive, no more sure of himself than I was.
“I just made sketches,” I said. “I wanted to—” I broke off, not knowing how to finish, not even sure I had a complete answer. I’d been excited, seeing him, and knew I couldn’t do him justice in a drawing right then. I was memorizing his body, his essence, really, and would do better taking my time filling in details, making the drawing come alive when I was alone with it. Back home.
He didn’t say anything, just looked up briefly, meeting my eyes before dropping his again. He waited.
I showed him a couple of the sketches. He looked at them under the dim lights in the parking lot. Then, slowly, his eyes came up from the drawings to meet mine. “You’re very good. Can I see the rest? The last one?” he asked, and there was a hint of something in his voice.
And I suddenly knew. Knew what he wanted. I hesitated, then leafed through till I found the one I’d done of him undraped. From my imagination.
I looked at it, then at him, then back at it, and then, perhaps the bravest thing I’d ever done, I offered it to him. He took it, looked at it, and blushed. He studied it for a long time, then handed it back, again looking up at me.
“How did you know?” I managed to mumble.
He grinned. Wow! It changed his whole appearance, and suddenly there was a light in his eyes that had been absent before. Artists notice that sort of transformation. Perhaps everyone does. “I, uh . . . I thought I saw you get hard.”
Then he blushed again, appeared to be even more nervous, and looked away.
He was right, of course. When I’d been drawing what I thought he might look like, I’d become aroused. I was so into the drawing, so into the naked image I was creating, that I hadn’t even taken the time to rearrange myself so it wouldn't be so obvious. Of course, he was the only one it would be obvious to; he was the only one in front of me.
I didn’t have the faintest idea of what to say to him. It was my turn to drop my eyes. I looked down, speechless, and we both stood like that for what seemed to me to be ages. Then he spoke.
“The Student Union is open. Want to get something to drink? I, uh, I don’t want to just walk away.”
I could see he was being very brave. I needed to be, too. “OK,” I managed to say and locked up the moped again.
Turned out that neither of us liked coffee. We each got a Coke and sat at a table. The place was almost empty at this time of night. It also turned out that what I suspected was true: neither of us quite knew how to start talking. So we sipped our drinks, took occasional glances at each other and let the tension grow. Eventually, it was too much and I had to speak. He’d outwaited me.
“How did you become an artist’s model? And why do you look so . . . well, so self-confident up there?”
He laughed. It was amazing how his stoic model’s mien disappeared when he smiled and laughed. I knew what it was. His eyes were vacant when posing; they came alive when he forgot to be scared.
“It was my dad. We’re close. Without him . . . .” Some of the life went out of his eyes, and I immediately wanted it back!
“What did he do? He gave you confidence?” I asked. Anything to get him back on track.
“Oh,” he said, shaking himself. “No. Well, sort of.”
I grinned, and he saw it and grinned back. “I’m sort of losing focus here, aren’t I? No, what he did was—” He stopped again.
After a pause, I jump-started him. “Was?” I said, drawing out the s on the end.
“Sorry.” He looked down. “I’ve never spoken about this. I’ve never had a conversation like this. I’m trying to leap into the middle of an explanation and it isn’t working. Let me start at the beginning. OK?”
I nodded, smiling empathetically at him. Hoping it looked like that.
“OK. My dad supported me one hundred percent when I came out to him.” He stopped, looked suddenly taken aback, and said, “Uh, did you know I was gay? Is that all right?”
I nodded again. “Sure. I didn’t know. You have to have figured out that I am from what happened—what you saw me do when we were in class. I didn’t know about you, but I was hoping.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t know anyone who’s gay. I’m out, too, but there wasn’t really much of a need for that. People assume I’m gay just from how I am, how I act. But believe it or not, I’m 16 and you’re the first boy I’ve ever met or spoken to who’s gay.”
“Me, too,” he said and blushed.
“Wow! Really. Lonely, isn’t it?” But while that might have sounded sad, I was anything but sad. I was smiling when I said it. I was delighted. I was talking to a gay boy!
“Yes. Very much. And that’s where having a dad like mine made all the difference. When I told him, he said he’d figured that out a long time ago. And that he was there for me whenever and however I needed him.”
“My parents accepted me, too,” I said. “So does my brother. He did right from the start when I admitted it. But with me being effeminate and never showing an interest in girls, they’d all guessed; it wasn’t a surprise. No one could guess with you.”
“My dad did, but he knows me, knew me, better than anyone. It’s just the two of us. Anyway, to get back to what you asked, about me being a self-confident model when I’m a mess otherwise—”
“Hey! I never said that!” I broke in, interrupting him.
“No, you were too polite. But I am, and I know it. Dad knew it, too, and thought I needed some help getting over myself. So he talked me into posing for art classes at the college. He teaches here and knew the chair of the art department. And I got hired.”
“Oh, man,” I said, shuddering. “I could never do that. How did you get the nerve?”
“Well, I wasn’t naked at first. I sat for some Figure Drawing 1 classes, and the teacher worked with me, and I found as time passed that what she said was true. People weren’t looking at me as someone to judge. I was an object, not a person, and when I realized that, I began feeling much better about it. I’ve been doing it over a year now, and it doesn’t bother me any longer. Even the nude stuff is OK. I’m always draped. The teacher says when I’m 18 the drape can come off if I’m OK with that, but it‘s up to me. Of course, they pay you more for that.”
“Wow! I still say, I couldn’t do it.”
“Sure you could. I think you’re kind of like me, a little, well, maybe lacking in self-confidence? Posing does help with that. You learn even when you’re a model and everyone is looking right at you, they don’t see you. They can’t see who you are. They see the outside, and it’s what we are inside that matters.”
I thought about that and could see the truth in it. And then I realized something. “So this is why you’re nervous now. Now, here, with me, I’m getting to see the inside, and that’s scary for you.”
He smiled a bashful smile. “Same way with you. You’re uncomfortable, too, and for the same reason, I’d guess. You’re thinking I’m seeing who you are and judging you and that I may not like what I see. Right?”
I nodded and looked at the table.
“So I’m nervous about what you’ll think of me, and you’re nervous about how I’ll judge you. Aren’t we both something?”
It sounded so silly I laughed. So did he. Then he reached out and put his hand over mine as it lay on the table. “I like you just fine, Avery. And I hope we’ll get to know each other and become friends, and that . . . maybe . . . someday . . . well . . . .”
He was smiling, so I didn’t think the reason he’d paused was because of anything bad. Then I saw a twinkle come into his eyes, and I couldn’t help thinking how much fun it would be trying to draw that.
“Well,” he said, drawing the word out as long as he possibly could, then winking at me, “maybe someday you’ll get to see how good your imagination was for that last picture you drew.”
As always, my sincere thanks to my editors. You do a marvelous and mostly unsung job.
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