by Franklin DiSalvo
For the English student who taught me to love men: a love song.
All these and more Ile give thee for thy love,
If these and more may tyce thy love away.
—Richard Barnfield, The Affectionate Shepherd to His Love
We’re strangers meeting in the library, on the second floor, where fluorescent emanations pass for light and you sit beside me in a makeshift classroom. My knee grazes yours. But when I wheel my chair away, scalded like Semele from Jove’s glory, the tendrils of your knapsack bring me to a halt. Don’t mind this, you say, over the rustle of a sweatshirt caving in on itself as you lean over to shove your bag aside. “Can I move this notebook?” An easy question, though I stammer through an answer, through the seminar that follows, while you note enjambment I would’ve normally observed. I laugh at your humorous interjections; I’m impressed by your stubbled chin and taut shirt. Anaphora no longer signifies and lineation means nothing. For once, the professor prompts me to speak, scarf uncoiling with every gesture she makes. I attempt something. But words melt on the threshold of my mouth. They go nowhere. They slide beyond my teeth, my tongue, to the acidulous oblivion of my stomach. Emptiness, blankness, whiteness on the walls, bleakness from every direction. Nothing to look upon but your callused hands, nothing to hear but your kindness and humor. Already, I feel the exacerbated distractions of OCD, the whips of self-flagellating priests from bygone years. Then a tiny chip in the paint, an obscure pock in the wall, into which I labor to heave this suppressed desire of mine, a longing to know you better. I hope, too much, we’ll be friends. You shake my hand. Class is over. I’m changed. And the world makes a little more sense.
Louise Herreshoff’s “The Parrot” is an impressionist work, colorful and serene. Heartrending. A woman assumes center-stage, the bulk of the canvas, upon which oily strokes of burnt-orange hair and the pale peachiness of her face bring this figure into relief. The blurry ovals of her eyes, forlorn, the slivered nostrils of her nose: one side darkened to the view. The other becomes one with her face, above the pink outline of a mouth. The blotch of whiteness for teeth. They’re clenched together, lips drawn apart to speak her mind. To sing a song? Regretful ballads of a life in the living room she doesn’t want to live. It’s 1918, a possible self-portrait, they tell me. Three years after she fled a husband who tried to lock her up, but before the divorce papers are signed. Is this memory of a life once lived? She’s staring at me, trying to teach a lesson.
I come home from school and into my mother’s arms, about to learn my lesson. We sit on the couch, hands interlocked as she rustles my hair, kisses my forehead. The first day of sixth grade. And she asks me what I’ve learned, what I think of middle school. I can already tell it will be nightmarish for me—stout, intellectual, nose in a book while other boys look at dirty pictures on the bus. One even slides under the seat to show me. They’re intent on breaking my resolve. “What do you think of your teachers?” “I like Mr. Snyder. He’s handsome.” No, no. Mom extricates her hand. She orients me towards her. We’re on the couch, and I realize I’ve done something wrong. “You don’t want to say that.”
She stands behind yellow, a ceramic cylinder whose base eludes observation. We can’t judge how far it stretches to the ground. The inside white, a dusty rim encircling its edge. Grays and blacks mark the circumference, but colors abound beyond. Flowers, devolving into splatters of cobalts and indigos, lilacs and rubies, beams of azure and rose dart to the side where they intermingle into coloric oblivion. Into an indistinguishable swampland of greenish-gray. This yellow is the yellow of the sun, bright and captivating.
I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something, I say, when I see my one “out” friend below the goldenrod logo of our university café. (I need to talk about you.) He has a second now. Unexpectedly. And I’m not sure what to do. I had an idea of how this would go. But his blond hair and polo shirt prompt doubts. I’ll have to admit what I haven’t admitted even to myself. Around us students are talking; the room buzzes with conversation. Ice kerplunks into soft-drinks. Frazzled workers call, then yell, then spit wayward students’ names. It’s all real, and what I’m about to say will become real the moment I tell him. This secret of mine will cease to be controlled, suspicions brewing since the first time I searched for two men kissing on Google. I felt perverted; it felt wrong. I was alone, in the dark of my room, on the bed, tense and exhausted and gaunt. A college junior now, I’ve never dated. Not in high school—“too busy” was what I told myself and what people wanted to hear. They ask still, and this same excuse rings more believably. Let’s go upstairs. It’s happening. My knees quiver with metronomic regularity. I need to tell someone after weeks of fixating on cords askew, books out of place, grades that could always be better. Finally: I’m gay. This transformative news. It comes out. I haven’t been sleeping. I haven’t been focusing. I can’t go on like this. I press my face against his shoulder and cry.
Her two hands clutch an orange dishtowel. It’s balled up, clumped together, pressed against her stomach, flesh against her body. She can’t escape. It’s a red-orange, redder than an orange. Not as red as the parrot sitting to her left. It’s an extension of the burnt yellows over her shoulder, contrasting with brownish mauves and lavenders and amethysts to her right. I wonder if she’s using it to dust. I don’t see her doing the chores she seems poised to complete. But I do see the dishtowel obscuring her right hand, held by her left. A manifestation of the pomegranate Persephone eats, the six seeds which consign her to perdition.
It’s an orange dishtowel my mother clutches when I tell her amidst preparations for a weekend birthday party. Washing dishes, Mom turns off the water, walks over to the table, and looks me straight in the eye. How long have you known, she demands. Who else knows? I give her a list of friends and three faculty members. My accreting stress manifests in yet another flare of fixations: the discordance of red in my shorts and shirt, the bag of chips not properly clipped, all as her eyes narrow, brow furrows, bottom lip pulls over the other. My mother closes her eyelids with mounting fury. I can see it in the way she cries, tears raining down upon me without reprieve. How can you decide this? What the hell are you even thinking? Do you really want to have sex with a man? Have a penis shoved up your ass? Do you actually want AIDS? I let her ask the questions. But I’m shocked she’s shocked. Shocked that her son who’s never dated a girl might actually like men. She thunders up and down the kitchen. Our schnauzer scampers away. We’re your parents. You come to us. They don’t know you like we do. They won’t remember you. I tell her she’s wrong. But mom grabs me by the arm. You just listen to me. I don’t. I can’t. “Some people wait years to say anything. Do you realize that?” I ask. “What you’re feeling—this is irrational.” But she tells me I’m not a parent. I can’t get it. This will ruin your father’s birthday.
From the yellow receptacle emerges a beige stalk, wood upon which this eponymous parrot perches. You can’t make out its claws, only a sooty smudge of mahogany, blues of midnight, darkened purple that verges on black. A streak of navy, under the parrot’s tail feathers, a forest green that loops under the bird, emerging from a body comprised of circular strokes. They pull farther and farther apart. An oval, this is the shape upon which a bright red head sits. Far redder than the washcloth, still with a hint of orange. This is the color of its underbelly that faces Louise. This is the color I see when I close my eyes at night, the single darkened eye. A profile image, she presents. The beak that becomes one with Louise’s black dress. They become one.
I metamorphose into that parrot. You’re parroting what’s popular at school, in this bubble of yours, they say. It becomes a topic of conversation all summer. In the car, at the dinner table, after I go to bed one night when mom marches right back in. The light flashes upon me, casting shadows across two bookcases. A $27 poster of the Declaration of Independence stares down upon us. I’m not independent. This is what she fears: you don’t have to be their mouthpiece, she insists. You don’t have to shine your light for them. How do you even know? Did anyone ask her how she knew she liked men? But I don’t say this, because I don’t know how. I picture you and want to share the tingling I felt when we shook hands, beads of emotion vibrating within my core, breaking free, breaking out, spattering across this new canvas of my life. You don’t understand how this will change everything. Oh, but I do. Louise has taught me some things about romance—her sad story of a dad who bought a New-York-City studio rather than allow his daughter to wed her Lancelot. Father will find you a husband, he said, and look how that turned out: his choice nearly shipped Louise off to a sanitarium, all to lay hands on her money. Marry your love, she whispers in my dreams, when I imagine this all being easier.
She wears a black dress, onyx that reflects the light towards her elbows and the edges of her form. But the v-neck shawl Louise wears covers most of her core. A splash of peachy neckline capitulates to technicolor swashes that flow together, like tributaries feeding the Nile. All become one, contiguous; they swim towards her shoulders, down to the end of her body, beyond the pale of the painting. Brown. Teal. Rose. Vermilion. Dirty bronzes mixing with black; a marshy culmination provides the background for this cornucopia of colors. I see blues and purples, dark and dire, and wonder what it was that brought Louise to imagine such a mantle.
There’s the purple of an eggplant emoticon. The blue of three small tears following close behind. This thirty-five-year-old sends me a picture of his crotch on Grindr, and I balk. How big are you, which I think he confuses with “tall”: “6 feet,” I reply. Don’t joke. In inches. How big is your dick? I can’t go on. I’m not ready to go on. I delete the app. Several weeks later, it’s our Friday evening Wal-Mart run. My roommates and I. And there he stands, peering through a fogged-up pane of glass in the frozen food aisle. Looking at the loaded potato skins. Do I walk over? Do I make conversation? He’s attractive, I’ll admit. I should have just sent the picture. I pretend to gawk at frozen peas. Now he’s turned away, swinging a young girl up and around the cart. They’re playing, and for a split-second I think he’s about to abduct someone’s daughter, until a woman loops around to our aisle, a small boy no more than eight, his hand in hers. The woman leans in to kiss her husband, this thirty-five-year-old man who sent me a picture of his dick. Nothing gratuitous, just a peck on the lips. They walk over to the register. He sees me. He averts his eyes. Ashamed.
Louise stands before a white block, stained with wayward blues and yellows that escape these walls on either side. Her shoulder obscures just what we’re supposed to make of it, this other object in the room—furniture to dust?—white to match the yellow of her parrot’s perch. White against yellow, contrasting the bleakness she tries to leave behind against a pallet of opportunities. Colors that will eventually bring to life a scene of her marriage to a man thirty years her junior, in the golden years of life. At least here Louise faces the sun.
I stare at this cup of mayonnaise to avoid what he’s saying; a strand of cheese sticks to the side. “I don’t mind them, but I think it would make me feel um—well—yucky to watch two guys going at it. Just because it’s so different from what I like.” This from a best friend, the one whose reaction I can’t predict. I’m in the university café, looking upon an order of loaded fries, a cheddary bed of interconnected gooiness interspersed with flakes of bacon. I tell this wild card of mine we need to talk in the room, and he suggests we head back early. “Look,” I say when we’ve shuffled across the hardwood floors of a renovated apartment, our third year living together. We sit down on opposite ends of the couch. “I’ve been wanting to tell you something.” You know how I never contribute to conversations about women? Or point out the hot first years in the dining hall. Well, I’m gay. He looks at me, a moment of hesitation. I’m probably the first friend who’s come out to him, certainly the closest. “You know we’re always here for you man. We got your back.” We embrace. “Oh,” he adds, “who do you have your eye on?” I tell him about you.
Louise studied impressionism in Paris before she returned with a dream, and love letters from her cousin James, the husband that was never to be. Nothing is definite. Everything comes together and departs again. Delimitations, boundaries, borders cast aside. Her eyes shift with every angle. The parrot blurs against the wall. The window above her waxes and wanes in color, in clarity, as do all things in this world. Her neck bleeds into her shawl, into her dress, into the wall and out of the painting altogether. Fluidity reigns supreme.
The brushstrokes of my life diverge from reality, foreground their independence, and re-converge anew. I’ve been rent asunder and redefined. I’ve gleaned a new impression of myself. I’ve experienced my first time. Something. That’s more than nothing. Nothing will come from nothing. So something must come from something. Which is what my girl-friend tells me could very well have happened when I got into his car. He only lived a mile away, past Wal-Mart. “Did you know him?” she demands. “How did you meet?” she wants to know. Her fluffy, furry pillows assume a certain maliciousness in the hazy light of the moon. We’re sitting below her window, in her room, splotches of color, of posters lining the wall. I don’t know what I’ve done. We met on Grindr. I’m using again. He picked me up on campus; he had a roommate. “Was she home?” No. “You could’ve gone anywhere. He could’ve taken you anywhere.” I know that. He said he’s a teacher. And teachers never abuse their students, do they? But I wanted to trust him, and I wanted to trust myself. It’s more difficult to trust people now. His house was clean, orderly: pictures of his family, an aquarium well-maintained. “Did you at least have fun?” This is Jackie now. I feel guilty. But joyous as well.
A triple-paneled window springs from the woman’s head, to her right, flush against the ceiling. Reminiscent of Da Vinci’s masterwork, this too overlooks Louise’s final stand. Pastel outlines of yellow frame diagonal veins of periwinkle, rays of orange, bunching together, and into her hair. Its height precludes escape from the hand-picked husband chaffing to send his spouse away and claim her fortune for himself.
The car window is particularly inaccessible. I want to jump out before mom finishes railing against “the screwiest thing I’ve ever done.” You don’t love men. You don’t want to have sex with men. Not everyone develops at the same time. It’s okay. This is not okay, I think. I want to jump out of the car, do something to get away. But where you get off thinking you can go behind your family’s back is beyond me. Do you realize how hurt your father and I are? But of course he’s too scared to say anything to you. Scared? “What the hell have I become,” I ask. You haven’t told anyone else? No, no, of course not. I’m following your directives, Mother. You haven’t done—uh—you haven’t done anything, well, with anyone have you? No, I wouldn’t dream of it. Our relationship mutates for good as the family’s washed-out blue Honda van traverses state lines. We’ve arrived in North Carolina. We’re going to the Outer Banks. A vacation, with three other families from home. Fun times await. I wish you were here.
You are here, sitting across from me, radiant as wayward rays of a setting sun emanate from the contours of your face. What else to do but look away, fearing you’ll see me blush? I’m disgusted suddenly by meatloaf and mashed potatoes, tile floors, and high-topped tables, the fountain machine two feet away in this dining hall of ours. Familiar, yet wildly foreign. These days while writing papers, culling evidence, retaining critical perspectives on literature, I’ve learned to manage obsession as an ever-present associate, but tonight I feel compelled to nab five napkins from the dispenser—not four, not six—though my therapist instructs me to “boss back” these unproductive thoughts. With you, I’m back in the library two years ago. We’re at it again. For a moment, I think this might be more innervating than enervating, passing you in the hallway, waving across the quad, sharing an occasional meal. But as you discuss your granola and girlfriend, the slow-foods movement, your passion for ornithology and hiking, I accept that we’re too different. That we’ll never be the friends I want us to be, the companions I feel I need us to be in my most vulnerable moments. Our stories will spin forth, they’ll diverge, and maybe when your children navigate those awkward teenage years, realizing their first crushes, you’ll think of that anxious friend whom you thought was smart. Perhaps you won’t know why. Perhaps you’ll never understand all you’ve given me: my future, my loves, my identity. Fragmented and whole, manifest and muddled all in the same wondrous moment. Gaze upon your birds. I too will wing towards myself.
Franklin DiSalvo just graduated from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Four years ago, he suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed below the waist, though with physical and occupational therapy he slowly relearned to walk. The experience inspired him to start writing more seriously. Last year, he was awarded the Beinecke Scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in English with a focus on disability studies, which will follow two years of graduate school at the University of Oxford as part of the Rhodes Scholarship program. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Breath & Shadow, and the Deaf Poets Society.