All of the obvious narrators for this episode are too intimately involved to give a completely disinterested account. So this is Kyle, again, telling you more about the very interesting relationship between Roger and Mitch, roommates from the first day of their freshman year at UND, and still roommates, well, more than roommates. However, for portions of the story I will turn to the persons involved to provide a first person narrative.
First, let's consider the title of this episode, Symbiosis. Of course there was symbiosis between Roger and Mitch, and I hope between all of you readers and your partners, lovers, spouses, and so forth. Well, this is a tale of symbiosis, but not between roommates, lovers, and in particular not between Roger and Mitch. But you'll have to read on to find out just how the title fits this particular episode.
This episode belongs to Mitch Flaherty, Roger's roommate, lover, best friend, supporter, you name it. I'd say "helper" but Mitch was no more able to help Roger with his physics than Roger was able to help Mitch with his oil painting. For recreation they didn't visit art museums, nor did they attend scientific conferences or visit research establishments. Each did that, but on his own. Together they found a love of good books, science fiction (books, television and movies), and the out-of-doors. Eventually they got to know Alan, Simon, Dirk and Mattie [Episode 113–Dirk] and joined them often on their canoe trips. As far as I know, the sex on those trips was limited to partners, but who knows? I like to dream that they may have traded off with Alan and Simon from time to time. They never said.
Mitch was an artist, and this story really begins with the relationship between him and Sid Madison, which began to take shape on the first occasion of our having Roger and Mitch to dinner. Sid's first report back to us confirmed that Mitch was a quite mature artist, without having to add "for his age" to the comment. His studio teacher was Grant Harwood, one of the best in the university's art department, according to Sid. I've already told you of his first oil painting with Grant, of a scene of what appeared to be a class in session on the lawn in front of the humanities building. Grant had been most impressed with the quality of the painting, and used it as the launching point for Mitch's next assignments. Grant asked him to sketch two other groups that might be gathered in the same campus location. One should be a sad occasion and the other happy. He could work with real people that he might see anywhere, or work from his imagination. The sketches shouldn't contain background, but could become the foreground for another picture like his first.
After some discussion with Grant, Mitch sketched a group of adults gathered for some kind of memorial service, clearly a sad occasion. It was sketched in charcoal, and definitely looked sad or at least somber. Then he drew a group of children playing around a maypole. For those of you that went to kindergarten after about 1960, when May Day exercises had all but disappeared from children's lives, a maypole was the centerpiece for May Day programs. Decorated with flowers, it had colored ribbons or ropes which the children held onto. They walked or danced around the pole in opposite directions, thus weaving their ribbons around the pole, and unwinding them by reversing their direction; there were lots of variations. Mitch had sketched them using pastel chalk, and happiness and gaiety stood out.
Grant then asked Mitch to choose one of his sketches for the foreground of another painting in front of the humanities building. After he completed that, he was asked to do a third, this time with the other sketch as the foreground. He ended up with three paintings, of three different groups, in front of the same building. Grant hung them in the studio side-by-side, and covered the foreground in each. All that could be seen was the building, the trees, the sky, and some of the lawn. The three pictures looked very much the same. You couldn't really put your finger on the differences. But when asked, virtually every viewer agreed which picture was sad, which was happy, and which was serious. After several days, and a strong consensus as to which picture was which, the foreground covers were removed. Sure enough, almost everyone had agreed that the class was serious, the maypole was happy, and the memorial service was sad.
Grant asked Mitch, "Did you consciously make the backgrounds reflect the mood of the foreground?"
"No, not really."
"But you were conscious of the mood of the painting as you painted the background?"
"Let's look and see what in the background carries the mood of the painting."
It took them a while, but Grant was able to point out changes in Mitch's brush strokes, from upwards to downwards, straighter lines in the serious painting. The light had changed, reflecting different moods. The leaves on the trees were slightly different, as were the clouds. Without ever being conscious of what he was doing, Mitch had portrayed the mood of his paintings throughout the painting, not just with the subject matter (that had been removed by covering the foreground) but with every artistic element he had worked with.
Grant concluded, "First, let me point out that this is the difference between a photograph and a painting. If we'd taken photographs of these three events, and covered the foreground, nobody could've guessed which was which. With your paintings they can. Somehow, and even you aren't aware how, you've conveyed your feelings in your art. I don't want to puff your ego, but you have the gift of being a great artist. You must keep on with your work."
Mitch had responded, "I'm not sure that I read as much into these three paintings as you do, Dr. Harwood, but I certainly intend to keep on painting."
When asked later if he had any idea what his next assignment might lead to, Grant disclaimed any thoughts of the future as he suggested Mitch's next project. He said, "I have an idea. Let's paint a still life of a vase of flowers."
Mitch was surprised and asked, "Let's, as in let us?"
"Yes. We'll get a vase of flowers and we'll each paint it. Side-by-side. Each able to watch the other paint and create. Each free to be inspired by the work of the other. We grant each other a license to steal. We want each painting to influence the other. Who knows where it might lead?"
"I'm quite honored that you would like to paint with me."
"Listen, Mitch, as things go in this world, it's very likely that I will be the one who's honored. Seriously, I think this could be fun."
They decided that they needed a really beautiful vase of flowers, and got a local flower shop to have their best flower arranger put together a vase that employed lots of color, but wasn't too large–those were the only instructions. They brought it into the studio and went to work. Grant sketched in charcoal; Mitch went straight to work with oil, concentrating on a single bloom. They watched each other. Grant tried a different bloom without sketching. Mitch sketched the vase before he worked on a different bloom.
They soon realized that the task would outlive the flowers. They needed a photograph so they could continue after the flowers wilted. Grant knew that Sid's son, Auggie, was a talented photographer, and he was invited to photograph the flowers. Auggie arrived with lights, cameras, light meters, and made a huge production of his photography, but a day later returned with seven magnificent life-size enlargements of the flowers that were almost as real as the originals. Put away in a refrigerator each evening the originals lasted almost a week, but Auggie's photographs lasted the two weeks of the project.
The paintings were displayed as a diptych, mounted side-by-side on the wall of the art department gallery. They were remarkable. They were clearly the work of two people, or were they? There was a lot of one in the other, but somehow they kept their individuality. Grant's tended toward impressionism, Mitch's toward realism, but influences of the other were clear in each. The consensus in the art department was that the paintings were sensational. Grant and Mitch were happy with that, but felt they had a long way to go. But they both agreed that they'd like to travel down this road together, wherever it was going to lead.
It's time to turn to Mitch to continue the story:
I proposed the next project. Another vase of flowers, but this time we would introduce the element of time. We would skip the photography, and paint from real life. But the flowers would wilt. Grant would start when the flowers were at their peak, I'd start as they began to wilt, just how wilted they'd be in my painting we wouldn't know until the painting was done. Likewise, whether Grant's painting would contain suggestions of wilt was unknown as we started.
The finished products, again displayed side-by-side as a diptych, received rave reviews from the entire artistic community in Grand Forks. Grant and I decided that we'd continue painting together, and would continue creating diptychs. The question became, "Where do we go from here?"
I told Grant, "I don't want to do more still lifes. I'm not sure I'm ready to do a portrait justice. How about some sort of landscape?"
Grant replied, "That sounds good to me. It's fall now [1996 to be specific; Mitch and Roger were now sophomores], and the greens are soon going to be reds, oranges, and yellows and then brown. Neither of us are high speed painters, and our process of watching each other slows us down even more. If we go out and start a landscape, it's going to change before our eyes and before we can paint it. Let's find an interesting scene, get Auggie to photograph it as we start to paint, and we can soon move back into the studio and work with Auggie's photographs."
"Sounds like a plan."
Auggie was delighted with the idea. However, he wanted to be a part of the process of selecting the scene to photograph and paint. The three of us spent several days roaming the campus, driving through the countryside, and walking along the Red River. The Red River isn't a very pretty river, and though fringed with trees, they form a narrow corridor along the river, separating it from open fields. We looked further, heading for the Ardoch National Wildlife Refuge. It was pretty, but nothing grabbed us. So we headed up the Forest River which feeds Lake Ardoch, the centerpiece of the wildlife refuge. The road runs close to the river at places, but the road is essentially straight and the river anything but, so we could see the river only now and then. We hit the first east-west road, 59th Street NE, which we'd come in on from the east. I should make a brief comment on the roads. They were gravel, one-lane roads. If you met a car or truck coming from the opposite direction, you both slowed and carefully pulled to the right and passed slowly. The rural roads in North Dakota are numbered avenues, which run north and south, and streets, which run east and west. The NE, for northeast, refers to the northeast corner of the state. If you study the map, you will find that the zero line, i.e. First Street, NE, is in the middle of nowhere–it's not as if everything started in downtown Fargo or at the Capitol in Bismarck. The little road from 59th St. NE down to the Ardoch National Wildlife Refuge was unnamed and unmarked, but it was on our map and we easily located it.
We turned west, and very quickly came to the bridge over the Forest River. It was a delightful spot. To the south there were only flat wetlands, and a few trees. However, to the north were two farms, one on each side of the river. Each of the farm homesteads was surrounded by trees–clearly some ancestors had thought ahead for their grandchildren–and then flat land down to the river. The river banks were green with low grasses and shrubs, no trees. The three of us quickly agreed: this was it. We'd photograph and paint in the northwest direction. We could show a little of the road, bridge, river, farm, trees, and vast flat wetlands. We'd start tomorrow!
The next day was a beautiful, sunny but cold, late September day. The trees on the farmstead were just beginning to turn yellow and gold. We arrived early in the morning, and Auggie said, "We're going to have to be here all day. The light will change, and I want to photograph it in all the different patterns of light and shadow. You two can sketch through the day, and we'll decide on a time/light combination for the final pictures. Then we need to be here at that time every day for about ten days as the leaves change. I'll photograph it every day and that will enable you to freeze the color at the exact shading that you want. From then on you can work in the studio with my photographs. By then you'll have about fifty enlargements, with three or four identified as the right time/light/color combination."
It was early November when the two pictures were finished. They were large and when framed and mounted side by side they filled a whole wall in the art department gallery. On the wall to one side were hung Auggie's four enlargements that captured the time of day and color shade that became the model for the paintings. On the wall to the rear were hung fifty-two smaller photographs by Auggie of different times of day and color shading. All of the photographs, and each other's paintings as they progressed, had been available to us as we painted. By then we no longer had to remind ourselves to consciously draw from all the materials at hand, especially the other's painting.
This is Kyle again, and I'll pick up the narrative:
When I looked at them I had one immediate thought: realistic art is highly subjective. Both of these were realistic paintings of the same subject. They were, in many ways, as different as night and day. I could look at one and say that it captured the photography perfectly. The artist was a camera. I could look at the other and say the same thing. Then I would look at the pictures side by side and see that the artists had seen–in the same photograph–very different things. Grant had been fascinated by the colors; you could just feel that color was the driving force in his painting. Mitch was intrigued by water and cloud: they stood out and claimed your attention. Yet, you could see Grant's color focus reflected in Mitch's painting, and Grant had clearly seen the importance of the water that Mitch had painted.
The art department faculty were the closest thing that Grand Forks had to professional art critics, and they were virtually unanimous that the paintings were an artistic triumph. Grant and Mitch decided to continue their partnership and paint more diptychs.
In many ways Auggie was a third member of their team; his photography was often their starting point, and the excellence of the photographs was important for the excellence of the finished oils. However, Auggie had a problem: Olympic sailing. It was that very fall that Tim had approached Auggie with the idea of teaching him and Charlie how to sail for the Olympics. Auggie couldn't turn down that request, even if he'd wanted to, but he didn't want to. So he told the two artists that he'd be glad to be part of their team when he was in Grand Forks, but that his time in Grand Forks was going to be very limited until the 2000 Olympics were over. He would be dropping out of UND (he was a sophomore) at the end of the fall semester.
But he was still around,, and soon Auggie hit the two painters with what turned out to be a completely life-changing invitation. He told them, "You two have to meet Willie Carson. Right now I'm not going to say why, but all will become clear. Lynn and I want the two of you, Roger, and Willie at my house for lunch tomorrow. We're going to invite Willie's wife, Sally, and his close friend, Hardie, as well."
It was worded as a command performance, and Grant and Mitch showed up, with Roger in tow. The others were there ahead of them. Auggie had a nice lunch prepared, and after they were settled at the table he opened the conversation. "The topic today is symbiosis. The dictionary says that symbiosis is 'the intimate living together of two dissimilar organisms in a mutually beneficial relationship' or 'a cooperative relationship (as between two persons or groups).' [Merriam Webster Collegiate, 10th ed.] You can skip the dissimilar part, but that describes the relationship you two need to build if your painting partnership is going to grow and prosper."
Willie chimed in, "And I'm here as proof of concept. It's my job to tell you a story."
Hardie said, "Except that I'm going to tell most of the story. I first met Willie when he visited my high school diving pool a couple of summers. He would've been in junior high school, and his father and Tim came over to dive–our school had the best facilities in the area. Next came this fantastic telephone call in which Willie told me that he was going to come to school in Iron River and wondered if he could rent a room from my mom. He spent the next four years living with Mom and me in our house, and he inspired me to become an Olympic level diver, while he went on to become the best diver in the world.
"Sure, there was a certain symbiosis between us, and it certainly was of mutual benefit–though to be perfectly honest I benefitted a whole lot more than Willie. During our time in high school I met Tim a few times, but I heard Willie talk about him a whole lot more. Willie was simply in awe of Tim. Tim was his hero and his role model. He called him Uncle Tim; that grew out of the relationship between Tim and Willie's father, Billy Carson. Now, if you want to talk about symbiosis, you have to look at Tim and Billy. Billy was simply in awe of Tim, and Tim eventually quit competitive diving because he knew that Billy would never be willing to beat him in competition. Then they developed their two-man show of what they then called tandem diving. A more perfect illustration of symbiosis between two persons cannot be imagined."
Willie continued, "He's absolutely right. But it has been equaled. First, there were Tim and me, and then Hardie and me, and then Billy and me. And that's why I'm here. Sid, Auggie, and I are convinced that you two need to build an equivalent symbiosis if you're going to produce the wonderful art that we all believe you're capable of."
"And just how do we do that?"
"Move your relationship beyond the professional. The only times you're together is when you're being artists. That's great, but there's a lot more to life, and you two have to share a lot of it. Go hiking, fishing, camping, explore museums (not art museums), eat a lot of meals together. Meld your social groups. You don't need me for this, nor Auggie, nor Sid. You need your own imaginations, and a commitment to find ways to share your lives outside of your art. And, keep up with your painting, that's the prize; keep your eyes on the prize."
Grant invited Mitch for lunch at the Faculty Club the next day. Before then, their shared meals were simply breaks in their painting and took place in one of the snack bars or cafeterias on campus. This was deliberately in a different category. Grant started the conversation with, "Do you think Auggie and Willie know what they're talking about?"
"Roger and I have gotten to know the Littleton family very well."
"You mean the physicists?"
"Yes. We've gotten to know them through Roger's involvement with some physics colloquium. Kevin and Kay Littleton, Ron and Sharon Littleton's children, are part of it as well. We talked with Kay and Kevin last night. They have to be the two smartest people I've ever known. They both agreed on two things: First, that Auggie and Willie, especially Auggie, are never wrong. Their track record is almost 100%. Auggie's become a true champion of lake sailing, as well as an outstanding photographer. As Kay said, 'You ignore Auggie at your peril.'"
"And the second thing?"
"Ignore Auggie and Willie at our peril."
"And you agree with that?"
"Yes, I do."
"What about Roger? Time you spend with me is time you don't spend with Roger."
"First of all, Roger is very busy. He feels guilty about how little time he has for me. Secondly, we don't have to exclude Roger to spend time together; nor do we have to exclude your friends. And, finally, as Roger insisted to me last night, he would never stand in the way of my improving my painting, regardless of what that involves. And he insists that he won't be jealous of you."
"You have no idea how lucky you are to have found Roger. I was never that lucky. The guys I know have never been willing to make a total commitment."
"Your day will come, believe me. You're too good a catch to be overlooked for very long."
"So, where do we go from here?"
"For a long walk around campus. I want to hear your life story and tomorrow I'll try to tell you mine."
I'll let Grant share his own story, as he shared it with Mitch:
I was born and raised in Baltimore, where I attended the excellent public high school, the Baltimore School for the Arts. At BSA I found myself in a community that was accepting of gays, and in which gay students weren't afraid to be who they truly were. In that environment I gradually became willing to accept my own sexuality, and admit, first to myself, then to fellow students, and finally to my parents that I was gay. I was confident of acceptance by my fellow students, but my parents' reaction worried me. However, as many gay young persons have found, my parents loved me more than they feared my gayness. Their fears were more for me as I faced a potentially hostile world than of me because I was different. They found support in PFLAG and were, in turn, able to be supportive. They accepted my plan to go to school in the San Francisco Bay area. I had considered the San Francisco Art Institute, the most prestigious art school in the area, but decided that its complete emphasis on contemporary art wasn't right for me. I chose the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland (it's now the California College of the Arts with campuses in both Oakland and San Francisco), because of the broader scope of its artistic interests.
I arrived in the bay area just as the gay community was responding to the AIDS crisis. Smart people had figured out that indiscriminate sex was an invitation to a fatal disease, and the whole tone of the Castro and other areas was subdued from what it had been just a year or so before. I was lucky; had I arrived two years earlier and been attracted to the sexual freedom of that era, I might very well have been dead or dying by the time I entered graduate school. I did meet two other young men of about my age, one a student a UC Berkeley and another a fellow student a COA, and the three of us became very close friends. We were confident of each other's honesty and of our sexual histories (all three quite minimal) and decided that as long as we limited our sex to the three of us, we were safe.
I enjoyed that three-way arrangement for all four of my years in California. However, the other two guys were truly falling in love, and I was not. We all graduated in 1987, had a grand and glorious fuck the night after graduation, and said our goodbyes. I returned to Baltimore to study at the Maryland Institute College of Art where I got an MFA two years later, and the other two partnered and stayed in California.
I followed up my MFA with a Ph.D. in fine arts from the University of Minnesota. After graduation I got an offer from UND to join the faculty as an Instructor, and by the time I met Mitch was an Assistant Professor of Visual Arts. There were three men (two on the faculty and one a carpenter in town) that I frequently spent the night with, but none of these relationships were likely to become permanent or monogamous.
Mitch's life history was much simpler. Mitch can tell it:
I grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, the middle of three boys, sons of Sean and Corri Flaherty. My parents both spoke with an Irish brogue and were determined that I would not. They weren't ashamed of being Irish, but were more interested in being American than Irish, and wanted their children to think of themselves that way.
My life in the public schools of Duluth was always easy. Studies came easily to me, and from an early age my teachers singled me out for my ability to draw. A fourth grade art teacher introduced me to charcoal drawing and working with pastel chalks. I painted with tempera water colors shortly after that, but didn't like the medium–I didn't realize that the poster paint that schools called tempera was only the cheapest form of tempera paint, and that it was a sophisticated medium that preceded oil painting. More traditional water colors were too vague–I wanted precise lines; thus my eagerness to try acrylics and oils. By eighth grade I painted exclusively with oil, and that's still my pattern. I'll draw with anything, but charcoal is my favorite.
My disdain of tempera and insistence on working with oil didn't sit well with the art teacher in my junior high school. My mother had to intervene with the principal, and had to agree to furnish all of my materials–which she was more than happy to do–she'd bought all of the oils that I'd worked with thus far. In high school my art teacher was delighted to have a pupil that actually was capable of producing good oil paintings, and he eagerly arranged for them to be exhibited around the city and eventually around the state. By the time I'd graduated I'd sold about a dozen paintings, for prices ranging from $75 to $200. I wasn't in the class of Sid Madison!
I wasn't, thank God, the first boy to have a hard-on in the eighth grade locker room getting dressed for gym. As I remember it, that honor went to a kid named Johnny. Johnny sprouted a good boner one day, and soon was being teased about it by a lot of the boys near him. He just laughed, and told the other boys that their soft dicks simply meant that were likely sterile. That made a couple of other boys decide that they had better prove they weren't sterile by getting hard-ons. The whole incident paved the way for the entire group to be completely relaxed about hard-ons, for which I was forever grateful when I sported my first public one a few days later.
That happened more than once, and one day Johnny arranged to walk with me as we left school. I knew he lived in the opposite direction, but he told me he was headed to the public library, which was just beyond my house. As soon as we'd put other walkers behind us, he said, "Mitch, I've seen you get hard-ons in the locker room several times. Does seeing other boys naked excite you?"
I'd never really thought about it, but the question forced the issue. I wasn't prepared to admit to anything first, so I asked, "What about you?"
Johnny fooled me by answering, "Yes, it does. I like to look at naked boys. I think you do too."
"What're you getting at?"
"I think we're both gay. You know what gay means?"
"Yeah, it means queer, homosexual. I'm not queer."
"I'm not queer, either. But I think I'm homosexual. But I like calling it gay better."
"What do you mean you're not queer if you're gay?"
"Queer is a nasty term, like nigger. People shouldn't use it. It's not who I am. I don't think it's who you are either, but I think you're gay. Think about it. Think about those hard-ons in the locker room."
"So what if I am gay?"
"So, nothing. You are who you are. But if you are gay, and if I'm gay, we might have some fun together."
"Is that why you're walking home with me?"
"You aren't heading to the library?"
"I will be if my conversation with you goes nowhere."
"I'll have to think about it. Look, we're almost to my house. Nobody's home. Come in, we'll have Pepsis, and I'll try to wrap my head around all of this."
Johnny did come in; we did drink Pepsis; Johnny didn't push at all. Finally, I asked, "OK, let's suppose I agree I'm gay. What would you like to happen?"
Johnny responded with his own question, "Do you jack off?"
"Then the answer to your question is that I'd like to get naked with you, and we could jack each other off."
I thought for a long time about that, and I realized that I'd really like to have Johnny jack me off, and I thought it'd be fun to jack him off. I simply said, "OK."
I'm not sure Johnny was really ready for that. It took him a while, but he finally said, "OK," too. He followed that by, "Where, and are we safe here?"
"There's a sofa in the basement; my parents aren't due home for at least an hour; and even if they come home, they won't come down the basement."
We went down the basement, stood facing each other, and slowly stripped. We were both soon naked and very hard. Johnny slowing reached out and took my dick in his hand, squeezing a little. He said, "Who goes first?"
My mind kicked into gear, and I said, "I'll jack you off first." I realized that once I'd climaxed, I'd be less inclined to want to jack off Johnny.
Johnny agreed. I don't know whether he was overly eager, hadn't thought through the whole thing, or simply realized that he was the one who had pushed for this, and he had better take it as it comes. He lay down on the couch and I got on my knees on the floor next to him and jacked him off. I didn't do much playing around first, and it probably wasn't the most exciting jack off in the world, but Johnny seemed to like it. He shot sperm all over his chest, walked to the bathroom, and cleaned himself up with toilet paper. While he did that I lay down on the couch. He came over beside me and asked, "Can I suck you? That's what I've dreamed about doing while I've jacked off at night."
"Who do you dream of sucking?"
"You. You're the only kid in school that I've IDed as gay. So can I suck you?"
I don't know where I got the balls to answer as I did, but I said, "Yeah, you can suck me, but you have to promise to swallow it all."
He didn't say a word, but knelt on the couch with his knees between mine and bent over and took me in his mouth. God, it felt good. I came pretty quick. Johnny waited just long enough to get a lot of my sperm in his mouth, but no so long that my excitement from the orgasm had died down. He slammed down on me, chest to chest, and kissed me, hard, driving his sperm covered tongue into my mouth. I was still so excited from my climax that I didn't even think about it being disgusting to have my sperm in my mouth. We hugged, kissed, spilled sperm, and grabbed at each other's dicks, for what seemed like forever. Finally Johnny said, "Don't try to tell me you aren't gay."
The relationship continued until the end of ninth grade when Johnny's dad got a promotion that moved him to Minneapolis. Like all young boys at parting, we promised to keep in touch, to love each other forever, and get together whenever we could. Well, we wrote a few times, but Johnny's letters never touched on our real relationship, nor did mine. I think he was afraid that his parents, or maybe my parents, might read a letter. I was in the Twin Cities once in my junior year for a state art exhibit, and Johnny and I got together, but only for a visit and meal, not for "other things." We had grown apart. We both had found other avenues of sexual expression–he was into multiple partners. On my next trip to the Twin Cities I didn't even look him up. However, I retain very fond memories of Johnny. It was through him that I realized who I really was, and was able to accept it. While I didn't "come out" for some time, I never tried to deny to myself who I was after that first afternoon with Johnny.
My summers were spent painting. The summer after Johnny left I became fascinated with Lake Superior. I painted the harbor from many angles, but was eager to paint a more natural scene. I convinced my mother to get up early enough in the morning to drive me up the north shore to Gooseberry Falls State Park. We lived on the north side of Duluth, fairly near the lake, so it was only about a thirty minute drive to the park. She'd let me out about 7:30 in the morning and I could roam the park and draw or paint all day. I brought lunch, drinks, and a snack. Some days I'd bring paints and easel, other days charcoal or chalk and a sketch pad. On the days with the sketch pad, I could roam all over and draw all kinds of things, but mostly I drew the lake and shoreline or one of the four falls of the Gooseberry River. On days when I had my easel, I'd set up and stay put all day. I'd get picked up by my dad about six or six-thirty. I think I spent more than half of my days at Gooseberry Falls that summer. Several people criticized my parents for letting me roam the park by myself so much that summer; all kinds of terrible things might happen. My mother's response always was, "He's much more likely to get in trouble at home alone than at the crowded park with his paints." She was right, and I never had any kind of awkward incident.
I still have the drawings and paintings I did that summer. As I look at them I'm amazed that I could do that well at age 15. I have about 25 oil paintings from the summer, and you can see my increasing skill in handling the oil paint, color, and shapes. My drawing was pretty good when I started the summer, and it didn't change much.
Fall brought me back to school. I did very well in all of my classes, but my love was art. I could take one art course each semester; "painting" could be repeated each semester; and I could schedule my study halls for the art room and paint that hour. My study hall was fifth hour and another boy, Jeremy Pittsfield, usually set up his easel near mine. He was quite good, but worked in tempera or water colors. We became friends, and enjoyed talking about our painting. We got close enough that we could criticize each others works without offending. I soon realized (today I'd call it gaydar) that Jeremy was almost certainly gay.
I was beginning to miss Johnny and the things we used to do together, so I screwed up my courage and approached Jeremy. I tried to think of the approach that Johnny had used with me, but realized that it had grown out of our being naked in the locker room. I didn't have that background with Jeremy. We did have our art in common, so I started with, "Have you ever painted a nude?"
"A couple of times. Have you?"
"A high school friend–last year."
"Boy or girlfriend?"
"A boy or a boyfriend?"
"I guess both."
"You're gay, aren't you? I've thought so for a week or so now. Don't worry, so am I. It's a big hurdle to get those admissions behind us, but we've done it. Where do we go from here?"
"Well, last year with my boyfriend–we never used that term–it was to my basement, after school."
"Do your parents know you're gay, or what you're doing in the basement?"
"No. How about yours?"
"They know I'm gay. It didn't kill them, but it didn't thrill them, either. Since I've never had a boyfriend, or a sex partner, there's nothing for them to know about my sexual activity. I guess they know I jerk off, but we've never talked about it."
To keep the story short: we moved faster than Johnny and I did, and it wasn't long before we were fucking each other pretty regularly. Then things took an unexpected turn. There was a third boy in the fifth period art study hall–the rest of the kids that period were girls. He was Frank Cole; a very nice boy but not the artist that either Jeremy or I were. One day, about six or seven weeks into the school year, he set up his easel very near to Jeremy and me. As Jeremy and I had found earlier, we could talk in that corner without being overheard. A few minutes into the period Frank said to the two of us, "You two have something going, don't you?"
"What do you mean?"
"I know you both go over to Mitch's after school pretty often."
"How do you know that? Have you been following us?"
"I'll be honest; yes, I have. I was pretty sure you had something going, and I wanted to find out for sure. I didn't want to suggest that you were gay until I was very sure. I'm right, aren't I? Don't worry, I'm just as gay as you are."
Jeremy asked, "Have we been that obvious?"
"No. Remember, I was looking for it, very carefully. A casual observer wouldn't have guessed."
I asked, "So, why are you asking? Do you have something in mind?"
"Of course. Can I join you the next time you go to Mitch's house? Would that be today?"
I looked at Jeremy and he just shrugged his shoulders, so I said, "Come with us today. We'll talk."
Well, talk quickly moved to action, and Jeremy and I ended up giving Frank a two on one blow job. He returned the favor to each of us. Frank had played around with a couple of other boys at school, but they'd become an exclusive pair and he was stranded. By the end of the year, the three of us were pretty regularly having sex. Frank's parents knew he was gay, and knew he was sexually active. They'd given him clear instructions about using condoms when fucking people of uncertain HIV status, and had told him that the guest room in the basement was a safe place to play where he wouldn't be disturbed.
Jeremy and I got to know Frank's parents, Emmy and Frank, Sr., pretty well. They were always friendly, willing to talk, including being willing to talk about homosexuality, and willing to respect our privacy. They did encourage me to tell my parents I was gay and Jeremy to tell his parents he was sexually active. We were both afraid to take that step, but they offered to help by inviting both of our parents to dinner. At dinner we could share our stories.
The conversation at dinner was guided by Frank's father. As soon as everyone was served he started the conversation: "The boys asked Emmy and me to invite you folks to dinner for a very specific purpose." Well, that wasn't really correct, Frank and Emmy had pushed us pretty hard to let them invite our folks for that very specific purpose, but we let his statement stand uncorrected. "I think that Mitch wants to begin." I didn't want to do anything of the kind, but we had agreed that I needed to go first, because my parents had no clue I was gay. At least I didn't think they did.
My mother spoke up. "Is this the time when you're going to tell us you're gay, Mitch?"
I said, "Yes," before I'd really assimilated the question. Finally, I was able to go on. I asked, "How did you know?"
Mom said, "I'm not sure I want to admit this, but I will. The parents of teenagers have to be detectives. Teens don't share a lot, particularly about drugs, alcohol, and sex–and a few other taboo topics. But parents have to know; we need to head off trouble before it gets out of hand. In your case, as far was we could tell, there wasn't any trouble we needed to worry about."
"OK, you played detective. But how did you know I was gay?"
"Well, for starters, you don't have a girlfriend. And you're pretty close to two boys–very nice boys, I might add, and ones of which we approve. But the give away was physical evidence. When you masturbate you clean yourself up with the sheet. After a week it's pretty obvious. Then you got involved with Johnny and the sheets were clean. Then you had the summer without Johnny and all of a sudden the sheets were stiff in places again. Then Jeremy came into your life and the sheets were clean again. They still are. Did we reach the right conclusion?"
You could've knocked me over with a feather. My parents had known all along and hadn't been disturbed. It wasn't the kind of "trouble" they were worried about.
Jeremy's mother said, "And I guess we're going to hear that Jeremy has a boyfriend or two. We knew he was gay, but the boyfriends are new for us. And am I right that it is plural–boyfriends?"
Jeremy answered, "Yes. Frank and Mitch."
Jeremy's father responded, "You know, a lot of parents like to pretend they were never teenagers, but I don't think that's fair to you boys. I can remember a lot of sex in junior high school and high school. In junior high it was with boys. I guess we mostly had circle jerks; I assume you know what that means. In high school we started with Spin the Bottle, but moved beyond that. I grew up in Bemidji, and the sex scene was pretty raunchy for high school students there. We weren't involved in gay sex, but I don't think there is anything that you guys do that we didn't do, and often in groups. I don't think it would be a good idea for you to ask for details; you have sufficient imaginations yourselves. Let's just say that 'boyfriends' (plural) doesn't bother me."
Jeremy's mother added, "Nor me, and I don't think you need any details."
My parents simply nodded their heads affirmatively. Dad said, "We aren't upset at what's been going on in our basement."
That acceptance blew our minds, and allowed our relationship to deepen and our activities to be less furtive. We could use our bedrooms, and I even convinced my parents to let us use the guest room where there was a queen-size bed.
Charlie intruding here. I had envisioned this story as a single episode, which would end here or in the next few pages. However, the story isn't quite half told. So we'll pause here and pick it up again in the next episode.
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