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126 Elm Street: A Memoir

For Alan and Martha


126 Elm Street was at one time painted maroon and at another gray. I think the maroon came first, and later it was gray. I lived there from when I was two until I left for college at 17. My parents continued to live there for probably another 15 years, so when I came home to visit, summers or holidays, I came back there. When they moved out, into a senior citizen apartment building, my brother bought the house and lived there for another ten years I’d guess before he bought an almost identical house up the street. 126 was one of about a dozen houses built at the same time at the bottom of the street. The street did slope down and so the houses were really at the bottom. The houses were almost identical, with slight variations in exterior details, but none within. There was a small entry hall, a living room to one side, a dining room and small kitchen to the other. Upstairs the master bedroom and bath were on one side and two bedrooms of different sizes on the other. I had the larger room all my life, but shared it first with my sister when we were of an age when mixing sexes didn’t matter, then later with my brother seven years younger. When my sister and I had it, we had bunk beds—I had the upper. With my brother I had a large single bed and he had a smaller one. Mine was a four-poster. I remember that the springs made a lot of noise when you moved or turned over. Consequently, when I was a teenager I had to get out of bed at night and lie on the floor or stand up to masturbate so my parents wouldn’t hear. The room seemed small to me then and having gone back often as an adult, I know for a fact it is small, not just an illusion of childhood. The other rooms were also small and over the years people added playrooms, dens, enlarged the kitchens, converted the basement or made similar modifications. From the front they look unchanged even now, but in the rear they are all different. Now you hardly notice the houses. The trees they planted that first year have grown to maturity--some have probably died and been replaced. So now the trees mask the houses and their identical box-like character is hidden. I have lots of memories of 126. They come up randomly, not chronologically. Once I sat in a chair in the living room talking to my father who sat on the couch with plastic tubes from a portable oxygen container feeding into his nose. He told me that he had never dared hold me during the first six months of my life for fear he’d drop me and suddenly I felt that explained everything about our relationship. My mother tried to explain sex to me on another couch in that living room; I said yes to everything, embarrassed and eager to get it over with and get away. Pictures show me in the yard dressed for first communion, climbing huge piles of snow, riding my bike, posing with my brother and sister in what must have been our Easter clothes, or in the house opening gifts in front of the Christmas tree, a Zenith TV with round screen in the background. I’m usually smiling, but my memories are of a childhood spent mostly alone. The oldest child in all the other families was a girl; I was the only boy with no male friends my own age so I played with the girls and when their brothers came along they banded together and I didn’t fit in there either. The boys my age lived up the street, played football in high school, drank beer and told dirty jokes. I read books, listened to classical music, went to church because I believed in it and fit in nowhere, or so it seemed. In winter all these distinctions meant nothing; we all went out at night to go sledding, coasting down the sloping street from the very top to the piles of snow around our houses at the bottom. One winter another boy and I joined forces to make money by shoveling driveways. Our best job was a long driveway at the top of the street that paid $10. When we were finished, we walked home late at night on hard packed snow and for those brief moments I knew what it felt like to have a friend. In summer, people seemed to disappear. I stayed around, mowed lawns to earn some money, hung around the creek that ran along the bottom of the street and through two large fields behind the houses that have now been subdivided into more houses or wandered by myself through the woods behind the houses one block away that was the first forest I ever knew, now cleared to make way for a new high school football field. One day I left the house to go to the library to find a book to read for school. It was my senior year. My history teacher selected books she thought I should read to prepare myself for college. The library put them on a shelf set-aside just for me and I could choose whichever one I wanted. This day I took a large volume off the shelf with a picture on the cover of a man in Arab dress riding a camel. As was my habit, I stood in front of the shelf reading the first few pages to see if I would like it. I remember it quite vividly. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I only got through a few pages when the words leaped off the page at me and I knew that I was homosexual. I put it back on the shelf and let it sit there for four years, afraid to read it for fear of what it would tell me about myself I was not yet ready to know. When I got back home that day, 126—the house, the yard, the rooms, were all the same; nothing had changed, only everything.

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