Picture this: I am 13 and I stand about a head taller than everyone else in my class, I am all arms and legs, all of which have minds of their own. Hands that flutter, feet that don’t quite touch the ground, both irrespective of the circumstance in which they would find themselves.  I have buck teeth (pre-orthodontia,) no father, fewer friends and a sharp tongue.  I’ve been reading Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson and other “boy’s” literature for the past several years putting me ahead and outside of the standard reading list of the time. I am not a wallflower—although the word ‘pansy’ may have been a mumblecore movement, an undercurrent to my passing a group of male peers—oblivious—and in spite of, or perhaps because of my outspoken ways, I wore the metaphorical bull’s eye of difference on my back.

I was miserable at team sports, particularly any game with a ball that was airborne, other than soccer for some reason, but that was a ‘un-American’ game and it was rarely played in P.E.   I was not a band geek, I was an orchestra geek. I played the cello and carried it, in its brown canvas case with its zippered sheet music pockets, the 10 or so blocks from home to school and back again when weathered allowed.  I liked to sit at the front of the class and was a know-it-all, hand-up-in-the-air to answer every question proffered by the teacher.  Girls loved me.

Seventh grade was the only year I was called out and was expected to fight another boy who thought I’d somehow disrespected him.  He was smaller than I was, but ferocious and came with a posse of friends and supporters—I had none—who quickly surrounded the two of us.  I did not know how to fight, other than I loved to watch boxing on TV.—but, d’uh, that doesn’t make you a fighter, it just makes you a ‘homo.’ And although that word—homo—never got used, queer did and of course I had no idea that that meant I liked boys more than girls and even when I finally got home from having the shit beat out of me — I had just folded into a ball on the ground like an armadillo and he soon tired of me not fighting back and got up off of me and took his ‘crew’ home. I told my mother that evening, after she got home from work what had happened. Did I cry then? Maybe. All she said about being ‘queer’ was that it meant you were different, but not in a bad way, just different and not to worry about it, she loved me.

The torture of teasing and ostracizing me by the other boys did not end after that fight.  That same year I continued to taunt them with the way I dressed—neatly ironed — a lifelong habit, I admit — and as up-to-date as the Sears, Roebuck Catalog would allow at the time. It was this flair, this style, if you will, that finally got me noticed by the 9th grade boys, who, in retrospect, I would now call ‘rough trade’, and not noticed in a good way.  That Christmas, mother’s latest boyfriend bought me a pair of ‘show’ cowboy boots that I had craved; they were palomino-colored with turquoise and rust floral cut-outs on the shafts and I fully embraced their beauty.  The first day I wore them to school (what possessed me?) a ninth grade tough with rolled up short sleeves, dungarees, slicked-back, greasy hair in a duck-tail, came up behind me and grabbed my new cowboy boot-shod left foot as I walked down the hall between classes and flipped me onto the hall floor, calling out to the crowded space “look at the queer!”

I hit the floor hard, my books flew out in front of me—I didn’t carry them at my side like other boys, but in front of me, like the girls did—and he walked past me, laughing “I’ll see you outside after school.”  It never happened, I can’t remember why, but I do remember the humiliation and the unwanted attention to my differences. Somehow I learned how to cope with it—this may be where I acquired the smart mouth and Paul Lynde self-deprecating snarkiness style of self-defense, but whatever it was I found, the abuse stopped, maybe not entirely, but enough to make it bearable.

My seventh-grade English teacher, Mr. Olson, with thinning red hair combed over his shiny pate, short-sleeved white shirts and a paunch, wrote in the margin of a graded assignment, “Robert, remember that pansies don’t cry in the onion patch.”  This cryptic message that I never shared with another soul during my school years (not even my mother,) stuck with me, a crewel-worked, flame-stitched primer on being gay before gay was gay.

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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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