HERNESTUS, PRIEST OF ANTINOVS
Hernestus Pheidos Akulas Kaemked Gill
And we can have forever
And we can love forever
Forever is our today
Who wants to live forever?
Forever is our today
Who waits forever, anyway?
Long before I had ever heard of Antinous, I knew he must exist. I knew even as a small boy in West Texas that I was different from the other boys and that there was something special, something magical about me. I knew this something must have a name and must have a sacred purpose. I didn't understand it at the time, of course, so much as just feel it deep inside me.
When I reached puberty this feeling of differentness imposed itself on my conscious mind and I began to understand that there was something fundamentally different about me.
In the shower room during P.E. I couldn't tear my eyes off the other boys. I didn't dare look at their naked bodies. But I couldn't tear my eyes away from their glistening wetness and budding manhood and the wonderful combination of hard angles and soft curves, of smooth skin and tufts of curly hair.
Otherwise, P.E. was a nightmare. The P.E. coach at Robert E. Lee Junior High School was a Purple Heart veteran of the Guadalcanal Death March. He had shrapnel in one leg and had lost an eye in the jungles. He saw it as his life's mission to turn us all into the same sort of embittered and hate-filled old wrecks that he had become. His exhortations on the P.E. playing field were mixed with rants about the fucking Japs and the fucking Commie pinko fags and Dagos and Greasers and Wetbacks and a basically fucking everybody. He hated us for being young and innocent. Most of all, he hated himself.
Choosing up sides is an allegory for life as a gay man in a straight world. It's the same the world over, regardless what the sport is: rugby, football, soccer, cricket, basketball, softball.
The coach picks two jocks to choose up two teams. They each shout out the names of the best athletes and within seconds the best have all been chosen.
Only the dregs are left: The fat kid who sweats and pants when just standing still; the nerd with the eyeglasses held together with masking tape at the bridge and an elastic band around the back of his head, the lenses thick as Coke bottle bottoms (I thought that style had been invented by a kid in my class until I grew up and realized there was a whole segment of the population who looked just like that.)
And of course there was the kid with the polio brace on his leg or with the withered arm. And there was the kid who as big as an ox and not quite bright, not "retarded" really, but not quite bright.
And then there were a couple of wraith-like creatures who seemed to be from another planet: Skeletally thin and ungainly and incapable of walking three steps without tripping over their shoestrings. None of these beings had even the remotest clue as to the rules or tactics of any sporting activity. And even if they had not been entirely clueless, they were so uncoordinated as to be a menace on the playing field.
I was always among the last to be chosen, oftentimes the very last. "Easy-Out Gill" they called me. "Godzilla Gill" they called me for my city-wrecking clumsiness.
It mattered little whether it was basketball or football or softball we were playing. We Who Were Chosen Last were always on the periphery of the game.
Yes, that was significant: We Who Were Chosen Last were always on the periphery of the game.
We'd be playing softball. Ostensibly. The others would be playing softball. We outcasts would be milling around out in far far left field or extreme far right field, trying to mask our utter boredom and dismay at the whole affair and hoping and praying that the ball would never come near us and that the bell would ring and save us.
I would stand there in the blistering West Texas heat, tumbleweeds rolling across the parched playing field, rubbing the wind-blown grit out of my eyes and I would dream of being elsewhere. I was in the future somewhere where it was cool and wet and where everyone wore tunics and robes and there was a gorgeous man who ...
But the daydreams were always interrupted by the crack of a bat against a ball and the flush of panic that the ball might come flying my way.
I'd look over at my friend Alan Dean, another of the sissy outcasts. He was even more sissified than I was, downright effeminate. I wave at him and cup my hands over my mouth and shout, "I hope the next ball goes YOUR way."
And he'd throw his hands over his mouth in shock and shake his head vigorously and shriek, "Oh no, NO! Not me! I hope it goes YOUR way, Ernest."
Then there would be the crack of ball against bat and, sure enough, the ball would fly in an arc towards Alan and the whole team would start chanting his name, and Alan would make an embarrassingly awkward attempt to run and watch the ball at the same time. And in the end, as the ball plummeted toward him, he'd cover his head in his arms and the ball would thud into the dust beside him to the groans of our teammates and the cheers of the opposite side.
I could take no joy in Alan's humiliation, of course, because the same thing could happen to me and, no doubt, would happen to me in the next inning.
Alan and I were on the same team. All the others were our opponents.
Sometimes Alan and I and the other outcasts were indeed all on the same team. That was when the coach, thinking he could whip us into shape, would single us out for an hour of practice on our own.
He would give us a bat and some balls and send us to a distant corner of the field where we were to "practice until you squirrely runts get it right." You could see the disgust in his face as he looked at us: a collection of cripples, halfwits and nancy boys.
The good thing was that the coach couldn't keep his sharp eye on us -- well, after all, he had only the one eye, the other eye rotting in some jungle in the South Pacific.
The bad thing was that he would occasionally look in our direction, whereupon we had to make a stab at throwing and catching softballs or dribbling basketballs or making football passes. It was all absolutely hopeless, of course. We were utter failures. We could see the coach looking out the field house window and shaking his head in contempt.
But all things pass. Even P.E. period comes to an end. The whistle would blow and we'd all race with light hearts back to the shower rooms for what was, for Alan and me at least, the highlight of the day.
I knew Alan was gay. Even before I knew what the word was. I knew I was it. I knew Alan was it. He knew. I knew. But we never openly acknowledged it to each other.
It's the same the world over, I suppose. I thought he and I were the only ones. But there was one more. Ramon was his name. He would love me all his life.
He was a short and somewhat plump Latino boy who had the most gorgeous raven-black hair and sparkling eyes and the sweetest smile I've ever seen before or since. His voice was soft and gentle and lilting and when he started giggling, he couldn't stop giggling. And when he kept on giggling, I started giggling and he would giggle all the more.
He lived only about 10 blocks from where I lived. But we never visited. We knew each other only from the public bus. We took the same bus to school every morning and the same bus back home again every afternoon for four years.
We would wait at the same bus stop every day. We'd talk about what we had watched on TV last night. We thought Diana Rigg was wonderful in "The Avengers." We loved Dr. Smith on "Lost In Space." I would do my Dr. Smith imitation and Ramon would start giggling.
We were both dreamers and were both excited about the space program and both dreamt of going into space. We watched the exploits of the "Friendship VII" astronauts and wanted so much to soar aloft ourselves.
Whether it was hot and dusty or cold and rainy, we would stand there looking down the street, waiting for that bus to come and take us away together. Usually, of course, it was hot and dusty.
We would stand there, books under our arms, me with my trombone case in tow, and we would be tired and sweaty and in need of a little comforting friendship. We would stand there like two pads of butter in a hot tortilla skillet, slowly melting away.
We would take comfort in each other's company. One day he would be crestfallen because the report cards had come out and he had made a D in Spanish. How could you make a D in Spanish, I asked him incredulously. Spanish rolled off his tongue so effortlessly. It came rolling out so full of warmth and affection and enveloped me with a feeling of at-homeness and at-easeness. But Ramon did not understand the dative case and so a white teacher who had learned her Spanish from a book in college gave him a D.
So I would say something silly and play the clown (as I always do in such situations) and he would start giggling and we'd both feel better.
We were both so excruciatingly shy that neither of us had any close friends and slowly, without our ever really realizing it, we became best friends.
We were both 17.
One day, Ramon told me unexpectedly that he had a surprise for me and that he wanted me to come with him. Instead of taking the bus home, we caught the bus in the other direction, into town.
We got off downtown and he led me to the one really nice jewelry store in town. We walked through the glass doors into the air-conditioned splendour of the carpeted store, past cases gleaming with gems and jewelry, and right up to the counter, where a man in a crisp suit said, "Good afternoon, Mr. Rodriquez. Your special order is ready and waiting." With graceful gestures, the store clerk produced a small black box and popped it open to reveal two silver-plated men's bracelets lying on a bed of white satin.
Each had a gleaming face plate upon which "FRIENDSHIP II" had been engraved.
"This is for you, Ernest," said Ramon in that soft and gentle voice of his. "It's a symbol of our friendship. The 'II' stands for us. For us two. Together."
I didn't know what to say. I was 17 years old. I knew I was gay. But I had never had any gay experiences. And I certainly didn't realize that his gift was a declaration of love for me. I stood there petrified. In shock.
I can't for the life of me remember what happened after that. I assume that I put on the bracelet and fastened the clasp and thanked him. But I also have no doubt that I removed it just as soon as he and I had parted company.
I was ashamed and embarrassed to wear such a stupid thing. And I was ashamed and embarrassed for feeling ashamed and embarrassed about wearing it. I couldn't wear it. I couldn't bear it.
I took it home and put it in the back of the top drawer of the desk in my bedroom. I never wore it again.
Basically, I couldn't cope with the whole thing. The implications were too profound. It was just too much for me as a 17-year-old.
Ramon, in contrast, wore his bracelet with pride and affection. We would stand there in the late afternoon sun at the bus stop and his bracelet would gleam gold in the rays of the setting sun and would jingle softly as he shuffled his books. And he would ask me where mine was and why I never wore it.
I concocted some story about not wanting to lose it (the way I had lost my class ring when I removed it to wash my hands in the boys rest room) and so I didn't wear it for fear of losing it.
He would look at me with such ineffable sadness in his dark and sparkling eyes that I could tell he knew I was lying, and the knowledge of that would cause a lump in my throat that would force me to look away, pretending to see if the bus was coming.
And, just as P.E. class would come to an end, the bus eventually would loom over the horizon and roar up to our bus stop and we wouldn't have to talk about it any more.
And in a similar fashion, graduation day came and went and the bus came and went past our stop and we were never there to wait for it any more because we had parted ways in life.
It was the height of the Vietnam war. I got a college deferment and went away to school and then lied my way into the Naval Reserve (like Clinton and Bush and Gore and other white boys of that generation) and eventually the war was over and I moved to the East Coast.
Like most Hispanics and blacks of his generation, Ramon was drafted and sent to Vietnam to become cannon fodder in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
A couple of years ago, when I went home to San Angelo as my father lay dying of lung cancer, I went through the belongings in my old desk, which my mother had left untouched all these years.
I opened the top drawer and there, at the very back, I found colored pens, a ruler, ancient fountain pen ink cartridges, a novelty deck of cards, used erasers, paper clips -- and a silver-plated men's bracelet with "FRIENDSHIP II" engraved on the faceplate.
I put it on and fastened the clasp around my right wrist, where it belonged. I've worn it ever since then.
I wear it proudly and with affection. In the setting sun it gleams like gold and jingles softly when I move.
I think of those days when I was so confused. I knew I was different from all the others. Almost all the others. My wandering and my confusion and my shame and embarrassment are over. I wear my bracelet with pride.
And I think of Ramon. My best friend. Who loved me.
I love him. I loved him then. I love him now.
I can think of no better statement of faith in Antinous.
Lumen Antinoi Adiuva Nos (Light of Antinous Nurture Us),
Hernestus Pheidos Akulas Kaemked Gill,
Priest and Aedificator of The New Religion of Antinous
The Temple of Antinous