If I have to get in bed with a female, Jane Austen is my woman of choice.
I know. That's such a fucking gay thing to say, but it's true. I'm a professor of literature, of course, so I have an excuse for liking Jane, but I admit that I've secretly liked her since I was a nerdy adolescent. I read a lot as a kid, the usual science fiction, mysteries, and adventure stories boys are usually fed. But I also liked other stuff, too. My tastes were more eclectic due partly to a box full of Reader's Digest Condensed Books that were found in my grandmother's attic.
My paternal grandmother was a tough old Irish lady who raised six kids during the Depression and World War II without much help from her husband, a foundry worker who spent most of his time away from the steel mills in the bars of the Angle, the old Irish neighborhood near the smelly Cuyahoga River (the one that caught on fire one infamous day in the 1960's). Peggy Shea Desmond -- yes, that's where my name came from -- took in boarders, did laundry, scrubbed, cooked, and mended clothes to support her growing family. She also went to Mass every single morning at 7:00 a.m. until a week before she died. Her kids all turned out okay, to varying degrees. The oldest, my Uncle Ralph, became a cop. The next, who was born a year later, Patrick, was set to be a priest, but he got sidetracked by the Korean War and ended up a career Army NCO. Then came my Aunt Theresa; she spend almost twenty years in a cloistered order of nuns, got out under Vatican 2, and became a high school principal at a Catholic school in Toledo. Next was my old man, John, who was known as Jackie. He was the joker of the pack, in every sense of the word. He followed his father into the mills of Cleveland and eventually became a big shot in the union. He also followed in his old man's footsteps by becoming a raging alcoholic, but that's a story for another time. Then there was a pause of a couple of years before the last two, Sally and then Mary-Pat, ended the Desmond baby marathon. There were actually two more in that gap, but they didn't live long enough to make an impact greater than names on tiny plaques in the family plot at Holy Cross Cemetery. I saw them myself when they finally put my grandmother in there when I was 11: Michael and Gabriel, two little angels, just like in a James Joyce story.
But when they cleaned out the old lady's house they put an old cardboard box by the curb. It was filled with cheap books, mainly those Reader's Digest anthologies. I took the box home and I read every one of them -- classics, best-sellers, memoirs, history, it didn't matter what it was, I read it. It made me wonder what my grandmother was doing with them. Had she actually read them? No one could remember her reading anything other than 'The Plain Dealer,' the local morning paper, and then mainly the Irish Sports Pages, as everyone called the obituaries. My Aunt Mary-Pat speculated that she bought them at some garage sale -- my family are notorious pack rats -- thinking someday someone might want them.
And I was that someone.
Included within those shabby volumes were a number of 19th century classics in heavily chopped up versions -- they were 'Condensed' after all. Stories to interest boys, like 'Treasure Island,' 'Dracula,' and 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,' but also more girly choices like 'Little Women,' 'Jane Eyre,' and 'Pride and Prejudice.'
I think I really knew I was a fag when I devoured 'Pride and Prejudice' at the age of 12 and immediately snuck off to the library to look for more Jane Austen. I was supposed to be going to Little League practice, but that was a hopeless cause. Reading about husband-hunting girls in Regency England was much more fascinating than dodging baseballs I could never catch out in right field.
Since then whenever I'm feeling anxious or depressed, or when the Xanax isn't kicking in fast enough, a few chapters of Jane Austen always calms me down. There's something about that world, where everyone has a specific place, where the rules of life are clearly defined, where wit and elegance and good character are held in high esteem, that works on me better than anything but sex or a hit of smack. It puts me in another place, another time, and I can sink into that world and forget all the other shit beating me over the head. That's really why I love literature; all the intellectual bullshit is merely a cover for that simple truth. It's an escape.
I thought I'd read a few chapters of 'Sense and Sensibility' while I waited for Aaron to come home. That's one of my favorites. I love the sensible Elinor, but I relate a lot more to the romantic and hysterical Marianne. Jane knows what a good nervous breakdown is really like. It makes me think that she knew it intimately, from the inside.
I read until I started to relax, then I set the book on my chest and closed my eyes.
"Hey." Aaron was shaking me. "Baby."
I stretched. "I was wondering when you'd get home." I glanced at the clock. It was just after 1:00 a.m. "That was a long meeting."
"Not a meeting." Aaron undressed. "I was helping some of my students with their final projects."
"The great Aaron Blumenthal helping mere mortals with their student films? Will wonders never cease!"
"Don't be snarky," Aaron sniffed. "You know I care about my students. I want them to succeed. And since I'm leaving..." He shrugged. "A few of them needed some extra incentive." Aaron poked the paperback on the bed. "Jane Austen? Are you out of Xanax?"
"I like Jane Austen." That's the problem with Aaron -- he knows me all too well.
"You aren't having any anxiety about this move, are you?"
Okay. This is my chance. Right now. Here it comes! "Of course not. I'm fine with it." And there it goes!
"Good thing I didn't come home and find you reading 'The Fountainhead.' Then I'd really be worried."
"I haven't read Ayn Rand since I started shaving! Her books are bullshit. Emotional fascism."
"'The Fountainhead' used to be your favorite," Aaron pointed out.
"Yours maybe, but never mine," I insisted. "The book of choice for would-be-intellectual teenaged boys everywhere!"
"Ha! Sounds like both of us!" Aaron got into bed. "Listen, Shea, I need to talk to you about something."
A new twist. But there's always a new twist. "Shoot."
"I talked to Kenny today." Kenny was Aaron's agent in Los Angeles. He was trying to work out a production deal for him. Maybe even get some gigs beyond documentaries. Of course, Aaron's dream was to direct a big mainstream Hollywood film. Some expensive genre flick with a lot of stars and special effects. He'd never admit that to his academic buddies, but that was really what he wanted. "Castle-in-the-Air wants to put out 'Red Shirt.'" Castle-in-the-Air Productions was a company owned by Academy Award winning actor Philip Farmer and his producer friend, George Greenberg. Their first hit film together was 'Castle in the Air,' that romantic comedy Farmer starred in with Margo Perry in the late 1980's, hence the name of their company.
"That sounds great."
"Yeah," Aaron continued. "'Red Shirt' is being used in a lot of film classes, as well as in Gay Studies, and there's a demand for something better than that old video release from '94. So they want to put it out and see how it does. If all goes well, they're going to give me the cash to finish the adoption film."
'Red Shirt' was Aaron's first documentary. It was the film that put him on the map. He made it as his thesis at NYU and it won a bunch of awards, including 'Best Documentary' at the Berlin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and an audience award at Out Fest. The success of 'Red Shirt' led to Aaron being able to get the money to make 'The Monkey Puzzle,' his AIDS film that was nominated for an Oscar in 1996. He didn't win, but we got to fly out to L.A., stay in a fancy hotel, go to the ceremony, and gape at all the stars. That gave Aaron a taste of what might be. Real success. Real fame. I knew that he wanted more than that little taste.
But 'Red Shirt' was also something else. Something we didn't really talk about.
"I thought Eastern Indiana was giving you the money to finish that. I mean, isn't that why we're going there?"
"I need all the money I can get for it. With the stake from Castle I won't have to cut corners. It can be first class. And..." Aaron smiled. "They want to do a total production deal. They want me to direct one of their features next year. Low budget, of course, but it's a start."
"That's amazing!" I kissed him. "Where's the champagne? This is really something to celebrate!"
"I know." Aaron took a deep breath. "But there's one more thing I need to ask you. Because it concerns you."
"What about me?"
"Robert Gaston, who's in charge of production at Castle, wants to include the original cut of 'Red Shirt' in the DVD, along with my commentary. He gave me his rationale -- and I agree with him. Now I need for you to agree, too."
The original cut of 'Red Shirt.'
That's the cut with me in it. Me in all my 16-year-old hustler and drug addict glory.
Aaron had finished the film and screened it for his thesis advisor before I came back to New York in the fall of 1988. Everyone, including Aaron, thought I was dead, so 'Red Shirt' played as a mini-tragedy, with Jack the hustler as the hero. But suddenly I wasn't dead. And not only was I not dead, but I was living with Aaron's parents -- after some intense negotiations, my parents allowed Lily and Sam Blumenthal to become my legal guardians. I went back to school, graduated, and eventually moved into Aaron's apartment -- after I turned 18, of course. Lily Blumenthal made certain everything was on the up-and-up. Or as on the up-and-up as such a strange situation can ever be.
But Aaron was faced with a dilemma. He could send his documentary out the way it was, with me all over it, and have both of us face the consequences, or he could edit it to obscure my identity and also make the ending more ambiguous. Which is what he did. He shadowed my face or re-edited to show me from behind. He also cut most of the interviews we'd done at his apartment. And instead of concluding with a dramatic confrontation with Stan, the pimp, Aaron shortened the scene and added an epilogue telling viewers that 'Jack' had been found, gotten treatment, and left the streets for a new life. The final shot was of me, in my leather jacket, walking away into the glare of a fall day. Aaron filmed that right after I got out of rehab and had started living out on Long Island. Instead of the Lower East Side, he filmed it in his parents' driveway in Parkville.
"No one will ever know," he had assured me. "No one will know it's you. I promise."
And no one ever did. Or if any of his colleagues suspected, they never said anything to either of us. And among the Blumenthals, it was a taboo subject. I was a part of the family, period. But how I'd gotten there, how I became Aaron's lover and partner, was something shrouded in silence.
"You promised me." I stared at Aaron. I couldn't believe what he was saying! "You said you'd never show that cut to anyone!"
Aaron looked away. "I never said I'd never show it. And, if you want to know the truth, I have shown it. To a few of my graduate students. And to Nick and a couple of other filmmakers. But I had to show it to Robert! He knew there was more to the story and he insisted on seeing the outtakes. So I had to tell him about the original cut. He watched it and he was blown away! He thinks it's the best thing I've ever done -- and I agree! You have to watch it, Shea. It's wonderful." He paused. "You're wonderful. You aren't just a documentary subject. You give a real performance. Robert says it's one of the most powerful things he's ever seen on film."
I just kept staring at him. "But you promised me, Aaron! You said you'd protect me!"
"That all happened over ten years ago! You're an adult now, Shea. That's all water under the bridge!"
I got out of bed. Away from him. "For you, maybe! But for me -- it's MY fucking life! It's MY fucking past! You want to release a film that shows everyone in the world that I'm a whore and drug addict? Is that what you want?"
"Were!" Aaron countered. "Who gives a shit what you were when you were 16 years old? You're 28 now! You're a completely different person!" Aaron climbed out of bed and cornered me by the closet, trying to turn me around and make me look at him. "This isn't about you. Or about us. It's about a piece of film. It's about my career! Robert wants this. He thinks it's important. He thinks it'll cause the critics to rethink my whole body of work! This is going to take me to the next level, Shea! And it'll take us out to Hollywood!"
"You've already decided to do this," I stated. "It's a fucking done deal, isn't it?"
Aaron looked me directly in the eye. Those piercing blue eyes. "Yes. It's a done deal. The complete DVD is coming out in the fall. With both cuts."
I knew my partner was a genius. An artist. I understood what he wanted. And that he would never be happy until he got what he wanted.
But this was about me. My life. My past.
And there was nothing I could do to change his mind.
"Baby," he murmured, his lips against my neck. "No one is going to judge you. In fact, this could be good for you. Your book on John Rechy -- I bet publishers will be much more interested in it if they know what your background is. Look at Rechy! He was hustling and writing bestsellers at the same time! That image made his career!"
"But I'm not John Rechy. I'm a teacher! What will my students think? And... and everyone?" Like my parents. And my sisters. I mean, they know about my past, but that doesn't mean they want anyone else to know. Or that I want anyone else to know. Or that they want to see it on a DVD, available at your local Blockbuster.
"Get back into bed," Aaron coaxed, pulling me by the hand. "Sleep on it. You'll feel better tomorrow. Everything is going to be fine, Baby. You'll see. I promise. I'll take care of everything."
Baby, don't worry.
I'll protect you.
I'll take care of everything.
I'd heard those words before.
Only now I knew that I couldn't believe them.