I first walked barefoot the summer I went to theatre camp.
Now, my family didn’t do camp. (Oh, the places I could go with that.) For one thing, we didn’t have that kind of money. But more important, when, after repeated attempts, my father succeeded in killing himself by combining alcohol and telephone pole, we survivors lived in terrifying, dysfunctional dependency; homesickness wasn’t just expected, it was required.
But, I’d known from a very young age I didn’t fit in the country, in what were still backwards-rednecky Frederick County, Maryland, backwoods. I had never enjoyed the out-of-doors, preferring my room where I disappeared into books or pretending my own complicated scenarios about who and where I would be as an adult: Rich, famous, New York hotel penthouse. When forced outside – I never went voluntarily – my activity was to plant myself on the wooden-plank swing attached to our back-yard oak tree, and sail through the air, singing either show tunes or songs of my own devising. Eventually the wailing and weeping – my Acorn Room repertoire was rife with tearful ballads, and I could cry on cue, copiously – would be interrupted by the shout from a nearby window, “STOP SINGING!!!”
Pshaw. In my family, bedtime ritual included the question, “How long can I sing?” We weren’t read to sleep – I was already being told I read too much – but, rather, we sang ourselves to sleep, although, even then, I was not much of a sleeper and having modeled my style on the Belter Holy Trinity: Garland-Merman-Streisand – my singing was less lullaby than brass section. I even cried loudly. My torch songs were more unto twelve-alarm fires. (Annoying to my family, yes, but it would later get me cast in show after show after show, because, dears, back in the dark ages, when I was young, microphones in local theatre were unheard of.)
So, it was understood (by me, only me) my fantasy of Fame, Riches, New York Hotel Penthouse – getting to that ever-after, over the rainbow, somewhere where I belonged – would be achieved via singing; and not just any singing, but, musical theatre singing. When an encouraging teacher gave me information about a theatre camp – THEATRE CAMP! – a place where there were sure to be more oak-tree-swinging, ballad-singing kids like me, a place where I would, no doubt, be discovered, appreciated, told to sing more rather than less – despite its more than thousand dollar price-tag, I knew I had to go.
My Mom didn’t have the money (or the inclination) to send me, and so, it was up to my aunt, Sissie, who not only sent me, but reveled in the notion that I, at twelve (or was it thirteen?) was going for it. She wanted me to live my dreams, since hers – being the next Edna St. Vincent Millay – had been repeatedly short-circuited by her crazy mother and sense of duty. I was packed up and sent off, the first in my family of six children to ever go away to a summer camp.
The first in my family to camp (again, the places that could go – but, another day). Charlie. That chicken, baby, weepy, terrified, hiding kid. That kid.
That kid, that Charlie, who’d spent previous summers being terrified of the outdoors; afraid of being stung by bees; afraid of walking on thistle-plants or being caught by what were called sticker-bushes; afraid of poison ivy which could be carried on a breeze to his untouched skin, causing him to explode into pus-filled, itchy agony; afraid of the splinters and broken glass and biting animals and insects he knew were everywhere lurking. Too, that Charlie was embarrassed by his body, had been since he’d been no more than four, maybe five, and one of his Mother’s friends had laughed, “Look at that pudgy, little pot-belly.” That Charlie wouldn’t take his shirt off; not at home in front of people, not in gym in high school, for years. That kid had cried so hard when he’d tried to spend the night at a friend’s house that he’d thrown up and had to be driven home. That Charlie, that petrified kid; He was going away. Yes. Theatre camp. The first.
That summer was an explosion of firsts and beginnings and experimentations and freedoms; a laying of the foundation of the Charlie I would choose to be, the me I built, the first time I fearlessly did and said what I wanted to do and say. I played at being big, loud, and bold in ways I had never dared, and for the first time, freed of the constriction of the family body-casts we all wore when together, those roles we played, I lived and behaved without consideration of what others wanted or needed or expected me to be.
At the first night of Theatre Camp, during the “Get to Know You” meeting for the seven of us who were boarders – five girls, two boys, the second of whom, my roommate, would not arrive until the next day and who I would eventually drive to self-harm – I declared myself. It wasn’t a plan, it was as if this person I am now, this man four decades later, somehow went back in time and possessed twelve (or was it thirteen?) year-old Charlie’s body and brain, and got him – me – to say, “Fuck it. This is me.”
Sonya asked. Sonya, of Sonya and Julie, D.C. city girl-best friends who claimed to have been sent away for the summer for dark, dramatic reasons to do with Sonya’s serial-suicide attempts and Julie’s drinking and drug use. Sonya, who looked like Patti Smith – who we all worshipped along with Lou Reed and Mick Jagger and David Bowie and William Burroughs and Sylvia Plath – Sonya, who said to me, “You’re a fag, right? Because we love fags.”
Never in my life had I ever said out loud to anyone that I was gay. I had barely said it to myself. But, that very first night at Theatre Camp, moments after the “Get to Know You” boarder meeting had ended, readying to walk back to our dorm, in that moment when Sonya asked, or, rather, told me, requiring only agreement; I answered:
“Oh yeah. I love dick.”
And, that, as they say, was the beginning of all he wrote and of my reputation as a drug-addled, ultra-cool, couldn’t care less, sophisticated, wild-boy.
Now, it’s important to understand, that while I’d long been accused in various name callings, toilet dunkings, beat-downs, snickers, nasty notes, and hateful-childhood-tauntings of loving dick, I had never to that point had anything to do with a dick other than my own. I had never even seen another dick; not my brother’s, not another boy’s; I didn’t do sports, I avoided locker rooms and occupied bathrooms, I just had not seen a dick.
But, when Sonya asked that question, it became very clear to me that though I’d yet to see another dick, I very much wanted to. I also felt sure – in that moment – that if I was only given the opportunity, I could and would more than justify the names I’d been called, the dunkings I’d endured, the beat-downs I’d suffered, the snickers I’d tried to ignore, the notes I’d pretended not to see, and tauntings I’d had to bear silently.
Now, I would show the world just exactly HOW MUCH I could love dick.
And with my, “Oh yeah, I love dick,” the years of trying (and mostly, failing) to play the role everyone wanted of me (whatever that was) with such vigor I had regular, crippling migraines, gave way to a new deception: I was uber-fag. The assumption, somehow, was that I was Mr. Sexual Experience. I went right along with it. I had to. I wanted to be the third to Julie and Sonya’s duo, and in order to deserve that, I had to be more EVERYTHING than they were. (Now, again, decades later, it is clear to me we were all lying – probably, partly – about who we were, practicing for who we wanted to be – or, thought we wanted to be, but at the time, I felt hopelessly hicksville compared to Julie, who, by the way, looked and carried herself a lot like Peggy Lipton as Julie from The Mod Squad, which, I told her, which, she loved, and Sonya.)
Julie and Sonya said “fuck” every third or fourth word, and so, I used it every other word. Julie and Sonya smoked a pack a day between them, and so I smoked two packs a day, thus beginning my long love affair with nicotine. Julie and Sonya claimed it was impossible to speak before having coffee in the morning and, thus, I, too, remained silent until caffeinated and, because I had to be more, insisted on having a cup of coffee with me at all times, claiming that if I went more than an hour without one, I could not function; a lie which – in short time and for many decades – became true. Julie and Sonya thought nearly everyone teaching and attending the camp – a group numbering roughly one hundred – completely lame, moronic, beneath contempt, and not cool. So, I spent the summer sneering and openly disdainful, morphing into Mean Fag of whom almost everyone was terrified; even Julie and Sonya.
By summer’s end, the three of us had been kicked out of Mime, Theatre Dance, and Fencing (all of which we hated) and I had made up for lost time, becoming the character I’d made up with my, “Oh yeah, I love dick.”
I still remember the feeling of saying that. It was as if I had killed the chicken-shit little boy who’d lived all those years in fear. I have terribly crooked teeth, the enamel is near yellow from experimental drugs my mother took while pregnant with me, and I have lived my whole life ashamed of the snaggled-stained look of them, never having the money to straighten them or cap them – so, I rarely really smile. I can remember though, that night, my face hurt from how big my smile was. In all the years I have lived, that night, that answer, “Oh yeah, I love dick,” was one of my most joyous moments, a highlight so high, so light, so full of self-love and courage and freedom, I will never forget it. The fear (for a while) died.
Sonya said, “Come on, walk with us.” We were to head back to our dorm. Sonya and Julie had arrived at the meeting barefoot. They were that cool. That Bohemian. That Patti Smith. I said, “Hold on,” and took off my shoes and socks, saying, “I fucking hate fucking shoes.” And the boy who’d been terrified of bees, thistles, glass, splinters, insects, animals, and himself, took off his shoes and never again, that summer, put them on, and with Julie on my left, Sonya on my right, the three of us joined at the arm, we slunk back to the dorm, becoming – as the dean of the camp later christened us – the Unholy Trinity.
That was the night I learned to love the sensation of walking barefoot, feeling the earth, the ground, my balance and place and belonging there, that night, because Sonya asked and I answered, that night, when they took my arms, that night when I said yes to me and to them and to life, that night, when first, I took off my shoes.
(Sadly, the summer ended. I went back to Frederick, retreated into who I’d been, sort of, somewhat, and began a decline into fear and loathing and longing that continued far too long, and for far too long had no Sonyas or Julies to walk with, arm in arm. But that is another story and not for today. Love and Light, dears.)