In 1983, when I was about to graduate from high school, Kelson was one of the most popular kids in our class. Sun-tanned from playing on the tennis team, he wore pastel Izods with the collars turned up and had perfectly styled blonde hair. He drove to school in his mom's beige Cadillac.
I didn't understand why he gave me the time of day, but suddenly there he would be in the hall next to me, chatting in that sarcastic but over-friendly manner of his. With him I always swayed between total humiliation and wondering if he was actually interested in what I had to say. I was Kelson's opposite: a pudgy, white-trash kid who liked to draw pretend album covers and had a C- average.
Kelson's parents were upstanding small-business people. He was their oldest, a shining example of upward mobility in a small town, and unbeknownst to them a great big hungry faggot. We'd met at the high-school radio station when we were sophomores. He was already the big cheese there, doing a sports show. One day, when I was getting ready to sign on for a shift and he was waiting to do his sports-show promo, we got into a conversation about Talking Heads and David Bowie. He was so impressed I knew who the Ramones were that he patted me on the back like we were smoking cigars in a drawing room.
Eventually conversations at the radio station turned into going out for pizza some nights, or to the movies but never as a part of any group. That way we could talk about cute guys, and he could tell me how he had sucked off a fellow tennis player in the backseat of his mom's car. At the time, I had my own secret boyfriend, some doofus who would butt-fuck me during sleepovers and pretend it was some kind of hypnosis.
Kelson was the homecoming king. After we graduated (me barely, and him top of the class), Kelson traveled to Miami for an extended vacation all by himself. In August, he came back with Archie. They were staying at some guy's apartment downtown because Kelson's mom wouldn't let Archie and him stay there together. In Miami, Kelson had gone full-tilt homosexual. He called me one night and invited me over.
When I got there, Archie and Kelson were in the bathroom fucking. Roger, the fat, bald, middle-aged guy whose place it was, was smoking pot and eating a ham sandwich. MTV flickered in front of him. Roger told me that Archie and Kelson had been fucking since Kelson called me.
"They took a can of Crisco in there," he said, laughing. "I shit you not."
I sat there with Roger and watched Taco sing "Puttin' on the Ritz." We could hear Kelson moaning above the techno sadness. A half-hour later Archie and Kelson came out of the bathroom, dewy from their shower, the soap smell and heat filling the whole apartment. Archie was even more beautiful than Kelson, tall and lean and tan with long black hair and thick lips. He wore a pair of shorts and nothing else. Kelson was in jeans and a t-shirt, barefooted.
"Banner!" Kelson said. "Lookie here, it's Banner!" He was so ecstatically alive it was scary. Archie was rolling his eyes. He didn't even want to be introduced to me. Archie sat on a chair adjacent to Roger, displaying the nonchalance of someone who didn't speak the language and had no desire to learn, as if just existing in the same universe as a ham sandwich was beneath him.
"Hey Banner, this is Archie. He is my homosexual lover. Fuck everybody, I'm out and proud," Kelson said. Even though what he proclaimed seemed rote, his voice had a thunderbolt inside as he said it. He came over and shook my hand like an overexcited businessman.
"Isn't Archie beautiful?" Kelson said even more loudly.
Archie said, "Shut up, Kelson."
You could tell Kelson was trying to find an equilibrium with Archie — a beautiful fag from Miami agonizing in this apartment. Kelson seemed even more attractive to me now, but I just sat there, quiet, taking it all in. I wanted them to want me to join them in the bathroom the next time they did anything, but I choked down that desire before it could pass over into the outside world. I knew I was just what Kelson wanted me to be: a witness to his bravado and nothing more. I simply had the privilege of basking in his glow.
Kelson ran over to Archie and tried to tongue-kiss him and Archie said, "Get off me, you fucking idiot." His voice was a prissy blast of steam.
They went back into the bathroom a few minutes later, and that was that. I drove home with the two of them still going at it.
I didn't see Kelson again until December that year. Roger was having a Christmas party, and Kelson said he'd give me a ride. I was standing outside the house waiting. It was halfway snowing, a little after nightfall. I had a bad sore throat and had almost called to cancel, but couldn't. I wanted to see him too badly. When he pulled up in his mom's Cadillac, he was playing Missing Persons on the stereo.
"Banner. Banner!" he yelled as soon as I got in. "What do you say?"
"What?" I asked.
"You know what." He looked at me like a drill sergeant.
"Pizza and beer," I said.
"Fuck yes!" he yelled as we pulled out.
By then, my secret high-school boyfriend had told me he was not gay and that I sickened him. He'd gone off to Purdue University. I'd gone to art school and met some people, mostly sad bohemian losers who had to work at fast-food restaurants to pay for their art supplies like I did. But I was always a little backwards, even with my own kind. So that night I felt totally in love with Kelson, violently so. Maybe it was the sore throat or my dad leaving my mom or just life in general, but I knew that night was the last chance I might have. I kept popping mentholated cough drops, the red ones that taste almost like cherry and almost like gasoline.
"How's Archie?" I asked.
Kelson didn't say anything. At a stoplight he finally said, laughing, "He left me. So now my mom is letting me drive her car again."
Roger's party had only two other people at it, his fat, balding-like-him sister and her skinny husband. Kelson and I sat together on the couch. I drank a lot. I also kept popping cough drops. The mix of the Jack and the cherry-menthol was soothing my throat, but then it all started to get gassy and blurry with the pot and the pizza and Kelson's breathy comments mixed in. I laughed too much, a fake-laugh I used to conceal how sick and love-sick I was feeling.
We left a little while later. Kelson wanted to drive to Indianapolis to go to some gay bar he'd been to. I was elated, feverish, and very, very drunk. Once we got onto the interstate, I turned the stereo off and I told him.
"I want to suck your dick," I said in a drunken slur. Humiliation and desire were intermingling into a warm and horrible trance.
Kelson didn't look at me. I think his uncharacteristic silence was an attempt to be kind. Right after saying it, I had to puke. He pulled the car over. I got out, gagging and sobbing. I puked for what seemed like hours. When I got back in, we didn't say one word to each other. He got off at the next exit and took me home.
The next time I saw Kelson was 1991, eight years later. I was living in Indianapolis with Bill, the guy I would end up with. It was late summer. We had walked downtown to get something to eat. There was a concert going on in the park so we sat on a bench to listen. Then I heard that unmistakable voice.
I turned around and Kelson was sitting at the side of a marble fountain. Zydeco music spilled out of staticky speakers. He was very thin, his hair not as blonde, dressed in khakis and a short-sleeved dress shirt with a clip-on necktie. He ran to us. I introduced him to Bill, and he shook hands with both of us. "So how are you doing, Banner? Remember I always called you that?" He laughed and the meanness that I remembered inside the laugh was all gone, as if surgically removed. The clip-on and the khakis looked like a joke, but the overly sincere look in his eyes said no. He was a scarecrow version of himself.
Kelson looked at Bill and grinned. "So he's your boyfriend, right?"
"Yeah," I said.
Bill laughed. I thought about how I had talked about Kelson to him, describing how desperate and stupid I was in high school, how Kelson was the most popular boy in school and me the least popular and how we had been connected to each other by destiny.
Now there was nothing to say, but Kelson kept on talking about his insurance business, about how he had been living in Miami for a while but then he decided to come back to town because it was hard for him to make a living partying so much. Each sentence was punctuated by a creepy, apologetic laugh. Finally, I said Bill and I needed to get back home. Kelson offered to drive us in his Buick. We accepted it just seemed easier.
It was obvious he was living out of his car: piles of clothes in the backseat, a plastic bag of toiletries on the back floor. Lots of pill bottles in there, too. We all sat up front. As he drove, Kelson talked more about where life had taken him.
"I'm in between homes right now. I was living with my mom, but things got you know tense there."
His fingers trembled so badly around the steering wheel that he had to make himself loosen his grip every few seconds.
Bill and I were renting a dilapidated Victorian house, and when we got there, Kelson told us how great the house was, even though it looked like shit inside and out. We hung out on the porch. I was smoking then and Kelson gave me a lecture about how bad it was not just for me, but for Bill second-hand smoke is a killer, he said. Then he asked if he could stay the night with us. He tried to say it with sexy vibrato.
"I mean, just a couple of days and then I'll find a place. Maybe we could share the bed, huh? What do you think, Banner? A little threesome?" Bill and I looked at each other in the way that people witnessing tragedies do.
It was shocking, but I sensed he had used this ploy before. It was old hat, and you can take him up on it or not it didn't matter to him. He just needed a place to sleep, and if he had to pull a threesome, that was cool. It was gruesome to watch, but I felt more connected to him in that moment than I ever had in high school. All I had ever felt for Kelson went from obsession to sympathy.
Kelson had no other options. He had lost the most vital part of himself somewhere along the way. And now he was totally alone. But the sympathy was evaporating even as it formed. "Yeah," I said. "We really are into threesomes. Can't get enough threesomes."
Bill laughed, "It's all we do on weekends. Threesome central right here."
It was AIDS, but he didn't tell us that. I found out a few years later. His mom finally let him come back home when he was about to die, and he died in the bedroom he grew up in. They had a funeral, but no one but the family was invited.
That night I don't think Bill and I were afraid of the specter of AIDS as much as Kelson's need to be near us. It was like he had skidded into a new kind of loneliness, and that was all that was left of him, a loneliness you just can't be a part of if you want to stay sane.
Bill and I made something up about how the guy we rented the house from didn't want us to have guests. He'd had a really rotten tenant before. He was always in and out checking on things.
"Oh, yeah, I understand," Kelson said. He looked me right in the eye, and I think, at least I hope, he did understand. He grinned at me not a smile as much as a secret prayer. Then he asked to use the phone; we heard him talk to someone (probably his mom) about tonight and how he was a little sick of this treatment and how he was sorry he was such a goddamn disappointment. The conversation went on for a while. Bill and I stayed in the kitchen and tried not to hear the rest of it.
When he left, Kelson was okay, or close to okay. We had some beers on the porch. He got nostalgic. He talked about being on the tennis team. He even talked about Archie, how beautiful Archie had been, and about Miami in the early eighties. Kelson stopped talking then, as if he needed all his concentration to get out of his hole of regret. He looked at his hands in the porch light.
What kept sticking in my mind was a memory from 1983, when David Bowie's album Let's Dance came out. I had lied to Kelson and told him I had the album, that I was the first person to have it.
He asked to borrow it.
He had money; he could have just gone out and bought it himself. But I think he suspected I was lying to impress him, so he pushed it.
"Sure," I said, knowing I'd have to wait until I had my paycheck to buy it.
On Monday I took the album to school. Finally I saw Kelson at the end of the day, by a water fountain near the gym's back door. I ran to him, showing him the album.
He just looked at me, a beautiful snarl encased in Plexiglas inside his eyes.
"Oh, I went ahead and bought it. Thanks anyway," he said.
Then he walked out to his mom's Cadillac in the parking lot. I stood there holding the album, watching him pull out of his parking space. I couldn't stop watching. n°
©2009 Keith Banner and Nerve.com