Shea at his therapist appointment -- and some backstory.
At 10 minutes to 4:00 I headed into a nondescript building on Commonwealth Avenue. To see him. My therapist. Vincent J. DiGiglio, M.D. and Ph.D.
Cool. Cerebral. Queer. Very hot in that cool, cerebral, queer way. A former Freudian who was now a former Lacanian. And well aware that I had a desperate crush on him. Classic transference, Aaron called it. I know -- I'm so fucking predictable.
I had an appointment with Dr. DiGiglio every Monday afternoon and had never missed a session. But then I'm trained to therapy like a dog to a dinner bell. I've been in and out of it -- mostly in -- since I was 16 years old. And if my parents had believed in psychoanalysis instead of the Roman Catholic Church, I would have been going even sooner than that.
You can tell a lot about your therapists by the way they decorate their offices. Freudians copy The Master and display collections of Tahitian fertility gods or Cameroon witch masks. Jungians tend to feature animal motifs. Lacanians love anything French. And New Age therapists like a lot of soothing colors, with scarves and feathers and chimes that waft and tinkle in the breeze.
Vincent DiGiglio was of the Italian School. As in Armani. Dolce and Gabbana. Versace. Prada. Gucci. Everything in no-nonsense shades of black and brown, with splashes of blood red and hot pink for accent. And plenty of leather. Leather chairs. Leather couch. Leather covered desk. Even leather on the walls. It was like being inside an extremely upscale rough trade bar.
The first time I came for a session with Dr. DiGiglio was about two weeks after Aaron and I had moved to Boston. Aaron, as usual, had taken advantage of his far-ranging connections to find me a therapist who was not only politically in tune with Aaron's current obsessions -- gay civil rights, same sex marriage, adoption rights -- but also a gay man. My last therapist in Philadelphia had been a touchy-feely straight female who Aaron felt was "indulging me" -- whatever the hell that meant. After doing a little research on him, Aaron felt that Dr. DiGiglio would never indulge anyone. Vincent DiGiglio, Leather Master, was the embodiment of Tough Love.
During my first session I was nervous to begin with. I was in a new city, facing a new job, and dealing with a partner who was freaking out over his career and what he saw as a lack of control over every minute detail of his life. I took one look at Dr. DiGiglio, with his wavy black hair shot with gray, his broad shoulders, his perfectly tailored Armani suit, his imperious Roman nose and vaguely Mafioso aura, and I was an incoherent mess. I stuttered and twitched pitifully, hoping he'd see me as a worthy challenge. I talked about my crazy parents and blighted childhood. I ruminated on the huge mistakes I'd made in my adolescence. On my addictions and obsessions. When that didn't seem to work, I tried to impress him with my academic credentials. Finally, I just gave up and flirted with him.
"So," he said at the end of that painful session. His voice was hoarse and resonant, like Tony Bennett's. "You are an immature and insecure Catholic homosexual would-be intellectual who ingratiates yourself with powerful father figures in order to avoid taking responsibility for your own life. Is that about it?"
"I guess so." What else could I say to that devastating appraisal? "What do you propose that I do about it?"
Dr. DiGiglio reached for a prescription pad. "Do you need any Xanax?"
I nodded. "Yes, please."
And that set the tone for my current therapy.
My first therapist was a stern, care-worn, but motherly Hispanic woman named Rosita Sanchez. In actuality, Rosita wasn't a therapist, she was a psychiatric social worker, but that was a moot point since she turned out to be my counselor and over-all lifeline for well over a year after I got out of rehab.
I was just over a month shy of my 17th birthday and believed without question that I was at the end of my road. I was strapped into a narrow bed in a bleak, locked drug treatment ward of a hospital on the border of Harlem and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was not far from Columbia University, where I'd eventually get my Ph.D. In American Literature, but that was the last possibility that crossed my mind as I lay in that sagging, horrible bed, wishing I were dead. I was also hooked up to an I.V. to keep me sedated and hydrated while I was going through an excruciating withdrawal.
Rosita came into my room with a clipboard. I remember that she was wearing a blue print dress and an orange sweater that didn't match at all. But the hospital was cold at the beginning of October of 1988. Or it felt cold to me as I lay in that bed, shivering so violently that my teeth ached. That's what I remember the most. Shaking and puking and crying. That's what drug addicts do when they come off the shit.
"So," said Rosita Sanchez. Therapists say "So" a lot. It gives them time to think. Time to look you over and assess the dire situation. "Shea. How do you feel, Shea?"
But I was in no mood to be assessed. "How do you think I feel?" I spat back. I was hurting and angry and feeling completely abandoned.
"Lousy," she stated. It wasn't a question, it was a statement of fact. I must have looked lousy, too. Three months of hustling and doing dope on the streets will do that to you.
"And my name isn't Shea," I insisted. "It's Jack."
She glanced at her clipboard. "My information says your name is Shea Desmond." She pronounced it "Che" like Che Guevara.
"Fuck your information." My stomach heaved and I felt like I was going to throw up again. Too much thinking. Too much talking. "My name is Jack."
"Jack what?" she asked.
"Jack Off," I snapped.
Rosita shook her head sadly. "So very tough. And so very scared."
"And fuck you!" I coughed. And then I started puking again, even though there was nothing inside me but their sedatives and saline solution.
Rosita was, as always, right. I was very tough and very scared. And totally fucked up.
But she called the nurse and stayed with me, unfazed by the sight of my body rejecting itself. Or me rejecting myself. And I stayed with her for the next year, seeing her once a week. Clinging to her emotionally, just as I clung to everyone else around me, afraid to separate myself. Until the day when she told me our sessions were over. That it was time for me to move on.
And now I was about to say goodbye to yet another therapist. And I was still fucked up, only in a different way. Or maybe not so different after all.
I explained to Dr. DiGiglio about Aaron's job. About my job. About Indiana. About Barbara. About everything except what I really felt about the whole thing. Which was a mistake. You can't bullshit the therapist. Especially not a therapist like Vincent DiGiglio.
"And what do you think about this move, Shea?"
Unlike all my other therapists who always asked how I felt about things, Dr. DiGiglio always asked what I thought about them. The difference was subtle, but typical of his intellectual approach.
I took a deep breath. "I think it's a wonderful opportunity for Aaron." I paused. "And for me, too," I added.
A flicker of impatience crossed Dr. DiGiglio's smooth, dark face. He had beautiful olive skin and large strong hands, like a Florentine sculptor. Or a hit man for the Mob.
"I'm waiting, Shea," he said, as if speaking to a child.
"Um, waiting for what?"
"For the truth, of course!" He rarely sounded annoyed. Today was an exception.
I took another deep breath. "Okay, I'm not happy. I don't want to leave Boston. I don't want to go to Indiana. And I don't want to take a job that my partner got for me. A job that he strong-armed the university into giving to me as part of his own contract. Do you know what kind of position that puts me in, Dr. DiGiglio?"
He stared back at me, still waiting.
"That means I'm a spousal hire. I'll go into this new job, this new department, as someone they were forced to take. Someone they don't want. Which means they probably won't be able to hire someone they do want because they had to take me. So I'm screwed from the start. I get the job, the title, and the money, but it has nothing to do with me! It's all about Aaron. About his fucking success! About his fucking talent! And about how I'm an appendage who has to be 'taken care of.' A fucking 'faculty wife' with a dick! Who has to pack up and follow my man around like a good little fag and be glad for what I get. And then not feel shitty about it. Not feel guilty. Not feel ungrateful. Not feel... anything. Just do it. That's what I think about the situation, Doc. And what I feel about it, too, if you care!"
"So," Dr. DiGiglio said. "Why do it?"
Good question. Simple question, right? But not so simple after all.
"Because I want to be with my partner, that's why! Because I love Aaron."
"Do you?" he asked, pointedly.
Stupid question! "Of course!"
"Why, 'of course'?"
"Jesus." I slumped back into Dr. DiGiglio's leather chair. It was hard and soft at the same time, in the way good leather can be. Cold and warm. Like Dr. DiGiglio himself. And like Aaron. "If I have to explain it to you, then what's the point?"
"You don't have to explain it to me, Shea," he replied. "You have to explain it to yourself."
Explain it to myself. But how could I do that when loving Aaron was so ingrained that it wasn't just part of my identity, it was my identity?
I remembered lying in that bed in the rehab ward. If not the lowest point of my life, it was close. Very close. But I could think of another, even lower point. That had happened the previous February when I had thought I was safe at last. Thought I was in a place where the street couldn't reclaim me. That little apartment in the Village near NYU. I was with a man who I thought would never abandon me. Who didn't care what I was or what I'd done. Who loved me, no matter what.
But I was still a hustler, getting what I need out of a man in exchange for sex. And I was still an addict, also doing what addicts do. I tried to stop the dope, ran out of it, in fact, so I got sick. Very sick. So sick that I was terrified that I would die. And he was terrified, too. That's when he went out and got me some smack off the street. I don't know from where or from whom, but it he got it. And he gave it to me, his 16-year-old hustler lover. I snorted it up and felt better immediately. Felt relieved. And so did he. It was a fucked-up situation no matter how you look at it.
I knew this had to end. Knew that it was a vicious cycle. I'd need the dope and he would get it for me. Maybe one day, he'd decide to try it himself. Just a little, to see what it was like. Soon we'd both be addicts. I'd seen it happen before. I'd go down and take him with me.
I packed what few belongings I had into a plastic bag. The one thing I had that was nice was a red shirt he'd bought for me. Looking back, it was a hideous 1980's nightmare -- a shiny shirt more suited to a cheap disco than hustling on the Lower East Side -- but I thought it was beautiful. I shoved it into the plastic bag and left the apartment.
I didn't see him again for almost eight months.
After getting beaten up by my putative pimp (listen to the little whore, using a word like 'putative'!), and having all my stuff, including my red shirt, taken by him, I got out of Dodge as fast as I could. I hitched to Boston and spent the summer hustling there in the Combat Zone. I tried to wean myself off the dope and it worked for a while. I got by giving blowjobs and jerking off guys, mainly in arcades and movie theaters. AIDS was running rampant and I was terrified of getting it. My deepest fear was that I was already infected, but I was too scared to know the truth, so I avoided the local Free Clinic for anything expect slinking in to get free condoms. Sometimes I did it raw, but only when I was truly desperate.
By the fall I was starting to get truly desperate.
After a few bad experiences with a couple of rough tricks, I walked out to the highway at the end of September and hitched back down to New York City. I figured Stan had forgotten about me by then. A few months is an eternity on the streets.
I was no longer snorting by then, but shooting up. I knew it was bad, but it was also inevitable. I was a fucking mess and getting messier. My nose ran constantly and I could barely keep any food down. I was a sick puppy. Then I scored some dope that was either too strong or cut with something I wasn't used to, because it made me even sicker. I passed out on the street only a few doors down from CBGB's. Hey, if you're going to be a cliché, do it right.
I was taken to a hospital on the edge of Harlem in a stupor, tied down, and shot full of Valium so I wouldn't go into convulsions. I'm not sure how many hours I was out of it. When I finally came around I was alone, except for the doctors, the nurses, the other addicts on the ward, and Rosita. Maybe that doesn't sound like alone, but it was. Because as far as I knew I'd been abandoned by the world. And I'd never again see the only person I'd ever cared about. My recent past had been beyond dismal, but my future looked totally blank. An empty screen. I couldn't even imagine what the next scene would be.
And then the door of the ward opened.
He was dishevelled, as usual, his baggy clothes thrown on haphazardly and his curly hair uncombed. He glanced around, blinking nervously behind his glasses. He was carrying a small bunch of daisies like you'd buy for a couple of bucks at a bodega or Korean market.
"Jack!" he cried when he saw me. Then he stopped. "I mean, Shea. Why didn't you tell me your real name?" He sounded hurt that I hadn't confided in him.
"I don't know," I shrugged. At first I'd refused to tell the nurses my real name, but then one of the administrators threatened to send me someplace worse than the hospital if I didn't. Someplace "downtown." That sounded like jail. Or the loony bin. So I gave up my last defense and told them the truth. I told them my name and where I was from. "On the street no one ever tells their real name."
"You're not on the street anymore, Baby," he said. He reached down and stroked my forehead, pushing my long, tangled hair out of my eyes. He was the first person who had touched me gently since I'd been in the ward. He'd also been the only person to touch me lovingly since I'd run away from home almost a year before. Always the only one. "And I'll make sure you're never on the street again. I promise. Never again. Do you believe me? Shea?" He said my name like he was tasting it. Trying it out. It sounded beautiful in his mouth.
"Yes. I believe you." And I did. Now that blank screen had a picture on it. Aaron and Shea, together. I had a future.
But how could Dr. DiGiglio in his leather office, with his cool, cerebral stare, understand that? That without Aaron I would be nothing. Less than nothing. If he hadn't taken me off the street, I would be dead and nothing else would matter?
When I left his office I knew that even though we might be in Boston for a while yet, I wouldn't go back. I was finished with therapy.
And I felt better than I had in a long, long time.