In the summer of 1993 after much self-bludgeoning, I finally came out to myself with a little help from the boy who would be my first love and my first lover.
No, that's wrong. In the summer of 1993 after much self-bludgeoning and tearful prayers in the lonely dark of my bedroom, I finally accepted what I had known for quite a few years about myself with a little help from the boy who would be my first love and my first lover.
I was at a summer program for gifted students, and I was studying music and making music videos on the cement-bound campus of Northern Kentucky University. My next door neighbor in the dorms was an odd blonde character named Donnye, and he was from Somerset. I'm not exactly sure how it came about that I told him that I liked guys because really up until then I wouldn't have admitted it, because I didn't know that was a thing to do...maybe he told me first and maybe he said it in such a way that I knew I could say it too.
We spent the rest of the summer together, though I still spent a lot of time with a couple of girls who were just friends but my bestfriends that summer, and my fellow music students (oh, Ruth, how I miss you) and my roommate and the other guys in the dorm. But then there were moments when it was just me and Donnye, and we'd be making out. Or naked together. Sometimes my roommate would be on the phone on his bed with his girlfriend and he'd pull the covers over his head and Donnye and I would make out and giggle. It was my first foray into sucking dick too...I don't think it was his, but he gave me my first blowjob.
I want to say that it was amazing but I'd already jerked off so much that day that when I finally came - more from the novelty of the act than the feeling of it - I came so little that Donnye couldn't tell. I had to tap him on the shoulder to tell him to stop. When he looked up, my cum somehow popped out of his mouth and landed on his chin, and being new to all this, it kinda grossed me out, but in a funny way. I remember sort of doing a dance of disgust while laughing my head off.
But I loved him. (And I no longer do the dance of disgust when it comes to, well, cum.) Going back home after that summer was very frightening and very sad, and I became obsessed with the feeling of love I'd had that summer. I visited Donnye a couple of times in Somerset, and it became clear that I felt more than he did (or at least it seemed that way until one Christmas he called me from Louisville where he'd gone to college, and I went to visit him.)
And I realize that whenever I meet someone or (gasp) go on a date, it's that summer feeling that I try to get back to. While my life hasn't (thankfully) included the violence that surfaces in Jim Grimsley's Dream Boy, my life has always included the fear of it. When I returned home, I returned to a family unprepared for who I was, a high school that suddenly became a minefield of verbal bullying (I skipped probably half of my senior year.) and a community rife with Christian-inspired cruelty.
I found family on the fringes of my school: the misfits and the girls who would eventually become fag hags. I can look back now and see the other boys who hung with those same girls, and I wonder how I didn't pick up on the fact that they WERE like me?
Dream Boy has both...that "summer" feeling but sadly also - not simply fear - violence as well. But I agree with Justin Torres who writes on NPR's You Must Read This, "I wish that back then someone had put this book in my hands."
In 1995, when I was a sophomore in high school, an older, popular boy came out of the closet. He was taunted daily until he dropped out. I never saw him again.
Months later, a decidedly unpopular, more flamboyant boy was beaten in the schoolyard. I remember escorting him to the nurse's office. I remember the look of disgust on the nurse's face; I don't know whether this disgust was directed at the act of savagery, or at the bleeding boy himself, and his arm around my shoulder. I also remember thinking that soon it would be my turn, and sure enough it was.
That same year, 1995, saw the publication of Dream Boy. In it, author Jim Grimsley confronts the violence of adolescent homophobia, but also, and maybe more importantly, he describes the emotional texture — the loneliness — of growing up queer, and the bravery and special intensity of finding love in a hostile environment. Grimsley demonstrates that two working-class boys loving each other, in the rural South, is an act as profound as it is simple.
I wish that back then someone had put this book in my hands. I didn't come to Dream Boy until nearly a decade later, at the suggestion of author Dorothy Allison, who insisted that it wasn't enough just to write the violence — that we need to write the tenderness as well. "Read Grimsley," she said; he's one who had gotten it right.
I now have no idea where Donnye is. I can't find him on Facebook. I've thought about calling UofL's alumni office but haven't yet. It isn't so much that I think for some reason NOW we'd be good together, but he's someone I care for, and those someones I want to keep close.
Jim Grimsley is the award winning author of Winter Birds (amazing), Dream Boy (heart wrenching, see above), Boulevard, My Drowning and others. Lately, he's been writing Science Fiction as well. He was born in 1955 and currently lives in Atlanta. Thank you, Jim, for your work. Sadly, I wish I had found it a decade earlier: I think I would've been stronger for it. :)
Justin Torres contributed the review of Dream Boy. He's a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop (so envious). His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House and Glimmer Train. He is also a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and very, very cute!