For You, The Stars
Chapter Twelve: Installment 2
I kept hearing about this place, Lake Beryessa, somewhere up in Napa, but I couldn’t quite picture it. Supposedly it was something called a marine resort, so I gathered it was bigger than a swimming hole but maybe smaller than Lake Tahoe. I’d been to Tahoe once and seen the watersports, the jetskis and motorboats and all the other gasoline-powered recreations. Seemed kind of noisy to me. I’d also been up to Mono Lake once, or thereabouts. Two of the Gomers, Bo and Jason, worked as paralegals at a law firm owned by this strange 60-year-old Princeton alumnus named David Durer. He lived on Lombard Street, the so-called “crooked street in the world” in an amazing apartment with a stunning view of the bay.
I got to see it when he invited a whole bunch of us to his annual holiday party. He had all kinds of naive paintings from Haiti on his walls. Apparently he’d been vacationing in Haiti since the 1960s. Jason and Bo told me he was definitely gay, but I guess he wasn’t really “out” - at least not in any obvious way. I mean he was an elderly bachelor in San Francisco so I suppose it wasn’t necessarily a secret. He apparently always had handsome young men working for him in his home. There were certainly a bunch of hunky looking twinks serving expensive wine and delicate hors d’ouevres at the party.
Durer had craggy face, wiry gray hair cut short and out of control beetle eyebrows. He wasn’t that tall, maybe 5’10” but he was imposing face-to-face. He had gravitas, a sort of stern presence and an iron-confident demeaner honed from years of arguing cases in court, although apparently he mainly did tax work nowadays. I have to admit I found his sexuality puzzling. I had nothing against gay people, wasn’t sure I knew any actually, and I was aware that politically and socially the Bay Area was a haven for people of all stripes. In principle I was all for sexual freedom of any shade, but I was still kind of backwards in my personal feelings.
At boarding school, gay or homo or fag were the kinds of epithets aimed at any unpopular kid. It was an all-boy school, so there was a kind of persistent horror of the gay. For some reason, even masturbation was considered gay, and when you think about seven hundred teenage boys all probably whacking it nightly, all accusing each other of being gay, all denying that they ever jerked off, all wondering if their secret shame in fact proved they were gay or made them gay - well, let’s just say it wasn’t a healthy environment for developing socially liberal attitudes.
When I started exploring peep shows and places like that in the city I occasionally wandered over to Nob Hill where the gay sex shops were. I remember one in particular called the Tea Room. I had a kind of uncontrollable curiosity, a combination of attraction and repulsion, and a desire to know every detail about what was ordinarily hidden.
It was one thing to lock myself in a booth and view some gay porn. It didn’t turn me on as much as the straight stuff but it was still definitely arousing. Fantasy is fantasy, and I didn’t automatically reject an image or idea if I found it compelling just because it signified the wrong kind of sex. But once or twice I wandered into places where naked young guys danced or where there were rooms for strangers to hook up, if you can call it wandering in when you have to pay $5 at the door. And every time I found the personal proximity of real live human beings of the same sex to be too much to deal with. Again, it wasn’t so much the thought of things that were gay, it wasn’t anything to do with mores, although I’m sure I still had a lot of residual prejudices in my mind. It was more a sense of anxiety about actually dealing with a real human being whose job is to be sexual and male. I had no context for appreciating that.
One time I paid to sit in the audience as a series of male strippers came out and performed on stage. That was at more of a safe distance and I could think about the peeformers a bit more objectively. They all had hard muscled bodies, of course. Most were around my age but compared to them I felt like a sausage or a dumpling with my soft muscles and babyfat. It seemed that most of them had to really work at attaining an erection in front of a crowd, which honestly is not that surprising. I was sort of hoping one of them would manage to ejaculate after all of that theatrical pumping, partly because - outside of film strips - I’d never seen another man have an orgasm, but none of them did and I wondered if maybe there were ordinances governing what they could and could no do in their routines.
Then one dancer worked his way through the audience and ended up straddling my chair, pumping his crotch in front of me. I remember getting very hot in the face, partly because I felt that other people around the room were looking at me and I much preferred the idea of being anonymous in the dark. Also, for all of my curiosity, this was just a bit too gay for me to handle, so I was glad when he moved on to the next patron. I remember thinking that he didn’t look that large to me.
Still, at least these guys were young and attractive, in gay terms. Sure, they were probably runaways or junkies and no doubt they were every bit as exploited and doomed as the female strippers I sometimes watched down on Market Street, but I could at least understand the appeal to those who bent that way. But an older guy like Durer, with his stray hairs and leathery skin? I just couldn’t picture it. In many ways I still had an extremely narrow concept of sex in those days.
So anyway it was Durer who took me along with Jason and Bo on a camping trip up to Mono Lake over a long holiday weekend. We were actually packed into our campsite on mules. As we slowly climbed up the Sierras through the switchbacks I heard the guide telling the Mule to “git up” when it was time to climb up over a step hacked into the rocks. I wondered if giddyup was really just a way of saying “get up.” We were taken through a snow-covered pass even though it was summertime and finally left at our campsite, to be picked up by the same muletrain four days later.
Durer had a tent to himself and another for his Chinese houseboy, who cooked all the meals and otherwise waited on him hand a foot. The three of us had a big tent to ourselves. Out of respect for the old man he hadn’t brought and pot with us. Basically, we were on our own during the days. We went for hikes and we eventually found our way to the lake itself on the third day. We were all feeling pretty grimy and we planned to try to bathe in the water.
I wasn’t really used to camping. I’d never been as a kid. It just wasn’t something my family did. I’d also never been to a summer camp. But in California it seemed like everybody hiked and did rock climbing and got out into nature as often as possible. We seemed to be surrounded by it. From New York you had to drive for hours to get to the countryside or up into what passed for mountains, like the Adirondacks, but in San Francisco it seemed like there was a campsite a short drive away in every direction. Some of this was probably an illusion. To get to the Sierras we’d had to drive across the San Joaquin Valley, after all, but the culture was so outdoors-y that I felt like nature was right down the block.
We brought a bar of soap and some shampoo to the lake, along with some towels, but what we didn’t bank on was the frigid water, which felt like glacier runoff. We stripped down and one by one jumped in, trying to soap up and wash as quickly as we could. As soon as I hit the water I heard myself start screaming. It was entirely involuntary. My lizard brain assumed, not incorrectly, that I was about to die. I found myself scrambling back up the rock face out of the lake after what must have been just second. Neither Bo nor Jason fared any better.
Still dipping in the water was a little refreshing even if we weren’t able to really cut through the grease. And the day was sunny and the air was warm so we dried off quickly and stopped shivering. I put my dirty clothes back on and we decided to try to walk around the lake. At first it was easy going, but when we got to the far side eventually we were sidling along a sleep rocky cliff. There was no going back and no standing still, but it was scary and I was complaining at lot. Jason eventually got impatient with me: “So you scraped your knuckles, Daniel. Suck it up and stop whining.”
I knew he was right and that I was coming off like a city-bred wimp but I couldn’t help complaining. It was my way of getting through what felt like an ordeal. Still when we finally made it back to the trail head where we’d started I felt a sort of pride in a physical accomplishment of sorts that was largely unfamiliar to me.
Durer seemed to sleep only a few hours a night. His houseboy, whom we called Hop Sing although we knew that wasn’t his real name, cooked steak every night, and baked potatoes. I don’t think we ate anything green. After just a few days I was entirely constipated and I don’t think my gut recovered until after we were back home for a couple more days. Durer had packed in what appeared to be about twenty heavy hard-covered books in a crate and was apparently working his way through them. I asked Jason and he said he thought they were novels by Walter Scott. I wasn’t really sure why he needed to come out to the wilderness just to read all day and until the early hours of each morning, but he was footing the bill so who was I to judge him?
If I hadn’t known Durer was gay I doubt I’d have seen him any differently. He was avuncular with us, but somewhat distant. He just seemed to like young people, especially fellow Princeton alumni, and it’s not like he was hitting on us or anything. When the muletrain packed us back out at the end of the long weekend and dropped us off by our cars I thanked him for his generosity and he seemed a little embarrassed by my effusive appreciation. It had actually been good to get away from everything.
By contrast, Berryessa sounded like a totally different experience. A bunch of suburban kids with waterskis and drugs and too much time on their hands. The way Cecilia described it made it sound kind of blue collar to me. The young folks didn’t seem like college kids but more like guys working in the trades - plumbers and builders - and girls working as waiters and bartenders. I mentioned that to her and she told me I was a snob. I told her I wanted to meet this guy Evan who had the place up there, Sheena’s friend, and she said she would bring him to the city next time she came. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
When I did meet him, that next weekend, he was oddly shy. It was obvious to me he was interested in Cecilia, and not, say, in Sheena. He mostly stood near her. But he wasn’t physical with her, so I assumed they hadn’t hooked up or anything. Cecilia introduced me as her boyfriend and he seemed to know my name, so she wasn’t hiding me from him. He was a tall kid, seemed real young, curly black hair, a bit of a mouth breather. A thin guy, sort of good looking I had to admit. More physical than me. He tried to be ingratiating, almost as if he was in awe of me or whatever Cecilia had been saying about me. Probably she’d been telling him how supersmart I was. She seemed to think that was something she could brag about, although all it did was make me feel odd in people’s eyes. What she took for brains was really vocabulary and verbal agility.
I wasn’t too worried about this guy. He just seemed like a lightweight. The Fogerty song “Centerfield” came on the car stereo when we went out after they had all done some bonghits in my livingroom. Hey, it’s that song “Put Me In Coach,” he said, all excited. The way he said it, it sounded like he was saying, “put me in coats.”
“I love this song,” he said, as he sang along with it in his half-dumb sounding voice. “You should hear some Credence then,” I said. “You’d like that even better.”
“Who?” he said.