Bruce and Charles

For most of my childhood, I was in love with my best friend, Bruce.

Bruce was a tall, blond Texan with the windswept good looks of a billboard model, and sometimes I would stare at him when he wasn’t looking, just to memorize his face, with its slight Modigliani slant, the dash of asymmetry that saved him from Ken-doll perfection and instead gave him a slight perpetual scowl, the kind that catapulted him into the ranks of almost intolerable beauty, alongside James Dean and the rebel heroes of the French new wave.

My mother was always gracious to my friends, but she viewed Bruce with suspicion. Maybe it was the way he squealed past our house in his purple Chevy Monza, or his innate contempt for authority. Maybe he was just too pretty for a boy. Conversely, Mrs. C. used to warn Bruce against me. “Doug doesn’t play a team sport,” she’d say ominously, “and he spends all his time with that theatre crowd.” Was I corrupting him, or was he corrupting me? It didn’t matter. Either way, our mothers’ shared belief that we were exerting an unwholesome influence over one another bonded us together with the force of Super Glue.

But Bruce did more than frighten my mother and set my adolescent pulse racing. He was my arbiter in the world of All Things New and Fabulous.

In 1979 Bruce rang me during dinner and said, “You’ve got to come over right away. I’m listening to this bootleg record, this new singer, she’s amazing, and she’s going to totally upset all the Catholics because she calls herself Madonna. Can you believe that? Madonna?”

Another time he summoned me to his house because he had — in his words —“redecorated his room.” When I arrived, he opened his bedroom door with the same hushed reverence a monk might show when unlatching the gate to the reliquary at Sacré Coeur. Hanging from the ceiling were thirty or forty plastic dishracks, bolted upside down, and filled with brightly colored disposable plates, saucers, and cups, which he’d placed in the oven just long enough to melt ever so slightly; they dangled over us like so many Tupperware stalactites. I looked at him, dumbstruck. “Pop art,” he whispered softly.

In high school Bruce became my first director. For drama class we decided to make our own film, using his father’s Brownie camera. The story we chose was universal: a first date. A randy boy would make unseemly moves on a hapless virgin. But the shocking coup de théâtre? I’d play both roles! As the predatory teen, I wore knickers with a varsity sweater and a jaunty cap perched sideways on my head. For the girl, we raided his sister’s Halloween closet and found a gingham dress and a blond wig with corkscrew ringlets. Through the miracle of editing (which in those days was accomplished with some tape and a razor blade), I would appear to be seducing myself! When the film debuted at McCulloch Middle School to a room filled with seventh graders, it was a rousing success.

It was in college that Bruce granted me another seminal first. I was struggling to come out of the closet, and Bruce paid me an all-important visit during spring break. He’d proudly proclaimed himself gay years before, and I urgently needed his help. “I’ve told everyone I’m gay,” I blurted to him. “My family, my friends ... but it doesn’t make me feel any better.”

“Why not?” he asked.

Tags: Books