In the process of reviewing the text of Observations from a Third-Story Window and Other Stories, I felt that some of the stories were not quite the best that they could be. I guess this is all part of being a writer, with a slightly obsessive compulsion to make everything perfect. (Personally, I credit this to Mommie Dearest – she always held us to a much higher standard than to which we would have aspired on our own.)
While some of them were (fortunately) good enough (IMHO) to stand on their own, I felt that the My Life as a Fairy Tale set could use a bit more polish. Up first? The Ugly Duckling. Getting a(nother) makeover.
I was nineteen years old, and I was freezing my ass off in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
Mind you, I was not adrift in an inflatable raft as a result of some catastrophe, nor was I attempting to swim some record-setting distance. Instead, I was topside on a guided missile cruiser as she made her way north towards the Italian port town of Trieste, at the topmost reach of the Adriatic Sea. It was January, and while magazines and travel guides always picture the Mediterranean as a tropical and exotic paradise, the photographers clearly had not been to this stretch of water during this time of the year. There are winds which come screaming off the Alps at about forty to fifty miles per hour, and they efficiently carry that chill straight out onto the water. It was that chill which cut through my pea coat, my uniform, my skin, and seemed to be freezing my bones themselves.
God I wish I had never started smoking. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be out here freezing. Instead, I would be back inside the ship, watching one of my shipmates play Doom for hours on end.
When I had enlisted with the United States Navy, it had been meant as a way to reboot my life. Much like the computers that were, sometimes, my only friends during my youth, it becomes necessary from time to time to just clear the cache, stop the processor, and begin to move in a different direction.
In my sophomore year in a small, state school just west of Atlanta, I found that my coursework was not up to “usual” standards, also known as “what my parents expected in return for their investment.” It was not the difficulty of the work that was at issue; in fact, it was quite easy compared to what had been assigned to me during my tenure at Wormwood. I simply lacked not only the drive to excel, but in some cases, the drive to simply attend class.
I would later learn exactly how much my parents sacrificed in order to ensure that I would never have to spend another week in the Tower as I had at Sweet Stream. They gave up their money, their home, and their plans for a quiet spot in the country to move to the slowly gentrifying neighborhood in south Atlanta where the school was located. In return, I was expected to study and do my best. While every year found me with a renewed dedication to the goal, each year my resolve was weaker and weaker.
By the time I moved out and went to college, it had all but completely disappeared. It seemed that each “fresh start” I would make began further and further away from the ultimate goal, making the road that much longer, the journey that much more difficult, and the whole endeavor that much more destined to fail.
The siren which called to me, which led me astray was neither drugs nor alcohol. Nor was it the allure of the opposite sex. By the time I graduated from Wormwood, I had all but surrendered to the fact that my romantic inclinations would always have a more masculine slant.
The proverbial chink in my armor was one that all youths struggle with at some time during their growth: they simply wished to belong.
Counselors, teachers (both education and Sunday School), and friends often made reference to the tale of the Ugly Duckling when I was growing up. While I know that their intentions were nothing but noble, I often wonder if they realized exactly how useless that comparison was for me.
To advise a child that their flaws, whether physical or social, will magically melt away upon maturity is too incredulous to all but the most dense of children. Most children can easily extrapolate the intended result: the child will, without effort or sacrifice on his part, become more beautiful than his counterparts, and those who excluded him will have no other option than to shamefully admit his superiority.
Why is the solution to a lack of social integration to promise the outcast that he will, one day, reign over his peers?
The ship rocks back and forth through the water, startling me out of my reverie while simultaneously lulling most of the ship’s complement to sleep in the decks beneath my feet. I was currently assigned the midnight shift, and in all honesty, I found I preferred the night. At night, it is hard to see that there is no one else there.
Ever since my days at Wormwood, I had always operated around the lower rungs of the social hierarchy. I may have aspired to be the best and the brightest, but whether due to some physical imperfection, or the fact that I just never understood the mechanics of how to properly integrate myself socially, I never quite seemed to. In fifth grade, I stayed up late the night before the first out-of-uniform day that I was to enjoy. While at nine years old I could not even define “fashion sense,” nor discern that I did not possess any of the same, I still chose with care my first non-uniform outfit for my new school. The next morning, I donned brown denim pants, a beige-and-brown plaid shirt (complete with mother-of-pearl snaps), and a brown denim vest which matched the jeans perfectly. My cowboy boots were less comfortable than the black loafers that I normally wore, but I guess that was the price I had to pay for fashion.
Apparently, I had not paid enough. Within half an hour after arriving at school, I had endured so many jeers and insults I spent my time between classes trying to figure out whether or not I could actually fit myself in my locker, whether or not I could permanently lock myself inside, and whether or not this would, in the long run, be a bad thing.
Over the course of the next eight years, I remained a target. On a middle school science club trip, I found myself sharing a bowling lane with my exotically attractive computer teacher, my science teacher and his fanatical dedication to the Georgia Institute of Technology, and his five-year-old son, while my counterparts enjoyed competing together. During a high school band trip to England, I wound up touring and dining with the chaperones rather than the other students.
I was the outcast who could not even find camaraderie with the other outcasts.
College was much of the same, except without my parents in the next room to force me to return, I soon withdrew completely into my dormitory. I chased off my roommate in the span of three months, and soon enjoyed a space to myself. My grades fell, my direction began to blur, and before I knew it, I was out of school, crashing with one of the instructors in hastily made plans to avoid returning home.
As fortune would have it, my father’s office was the halfway point between my makeshift home and my parents’ house, and I would occasionally meet him for lunch. During one of these stilted, awkward conversations, I let slip that I had entertained thoughts of leaving school so I could go work for Carnival Cruise Lines, further misspending spend my youth floating around the Caribbean. He suggested that if I really wanted to be on a ship, I should give the Navy a try.
It should not have surprised me that I would go to work the next evening only to find a Naval recruiter sitting at my bar. I will never forget the look in my mother’s eyes when I appeared, uninvited, for dinner one night, having spent all day at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building downtown. Her first question (“Did you sign anything?”) was quickly followed by her second (“Where did you get a crazy idea like this one?”).
I learned later that my father slept on the couch for a full month after that revelation.
Staring out at the black veil which surrounded the ship, I shuddered into my wool pea coat, and headed back down the port side towards the hatch, once more to the cocoon of warmth found inside the skin of the ship. I found my way to the lower decks, and crawled into my rack, pulling the curtain to keep out the light. Sleep soon overtook me, but my dreams were unsettled. I could hear the guy across from me coming and going, his eyes slipping into the space where I slept, watching me.
I did not know it at the time, but in a month I would need to reinvent myself again. I would be unceremoniously shipped back to the United States, condemned for something that is no longer a crime. I would be stripped of my rank, my privilege, my identity, my security.
Cowboy… Student… Musician… Actor…
I would rekindle a friendship I had held onto since high school, and be whisked to the mountains of east Tennessee. I would be taken to meet people who saw past the feathers, and looked instead at the duck. One of these friendships would last two months, one would still be going strong after two decades.
Student… Sailor… Victim…
I would garner the courage to not merely come out of my proverbial closet, but to also realize that “gay”, “smart”, “funny”, “reliable”, and even “ugly” are each only single feathers in the whole coat.
Son… Uncle… Friend… Confidant…
In the end, it is finding comfort in your own feathers that gives you the elegance of a swan.