Gay men and lesbians are the people of drama. I have a theory that gay identity is really founded on storytelling and gossip, not sex, that in fact often have sex so they can talk about it. From the moment of that first entry into “the community” or “the life,” we’re embedded in a legendary network of gossip, tale-telling, and multiple interpretations of the same events. There will always be layers upon layers and nothing should ever be taken for granted. Identity becomes an art form at time, a pastiche of meanings, affiliations, and self-parody that can be baroque.
Being back in doctoral town has triggered, natürlich, different memory cues that have been submerged like Atlantis, now resurfacing in strange, illuminating ways. Like coming upon particular scents that reveal memory suddenly, these memory triggers are relatively unexpected, surprising in their detail. In many ways, I am given to brooding, but this process of memory synapse is not necessarily depression, but neither is it quite elation. Rather, it has tended to have the effect of an uncanny curio: was that really me? Was that then? Did it really happen that way?
On the main drag separating the campus and the town sits a house I lived in for two years in the early nineties, when such a thing could be found for an affordable price. A Spanish Revival bungalow, it has of course been renovated since my time there, but retains the shape and feel of the house I knew. A small front yard shaded by a weeping willow, contained by a delightful wooden picket fence, a red-tiled covered front porch and relatively modest stucco façade. The house had two bedrooms, one small and one large, a cute kitchen, a glass enclosed dining room that was always too hot or too cold, a funky seventies-style back deck, and a yard that stretched out behind the property for 15 metres where wild fennel and geraniums grew, with a gnarly bottle brush tree that was untended and always covered by spider webs.
I lived there for my two years with the Squirrel, my nickname for a former good friend whom I had known at Prestigious Eastern University as an undergraduate and who had come to join me for graduate study the year after I began the program. We lived here together, thick as thieves, for his first two years, and my second and third years in the program, as friends, colleagues, and co-conspirators. The break-up of our friendship and its connection to my subsequent graduate career in the program and formation of my theoretical and intellectual worldview, especially against the back-drop of those two years together, is what gives pause in the memory synapse, although now, so many years subsequent, the pain and hurt of the moment, the memory, is blunted, disconnected: intellectual, esoteric, a lesson as instructive as a primer but more vague, dissolute, inchoate.
The Squirrel was a senior when I was a freshman at PU. Short of stature, with the scars of severe teenage acne, and an intriguing interest in dance music, the Squirrel was a minor player in the relatively large crew of gay Chicanos that made my moment at PU so extraordinary. Not as glamourous as J’aime with her backless sweaters, floppy hair, endless virginity, and white linen santero palazzo pants, or as sluttishly motherhennish as La Martina, with her lively past as a young hustler specialising in Anglo men in Houston, the Squirrel made his name on his dance tapes, always with the latest hits, that he produced for the MEChA parties he would DJ. We weren’t as familiar with each other during that shared school year, but when I returned to Los Angeles for the first (and only) summer back home, he was there too, as we both were from California. What turned out to be a series of phone calls initially grounded to a certain extent in summer ennui became a strong friendship, one with particular resonances in the gay man I would become.
The Squirrel took me, in his old VW bug, to my first gay pride parade. He took me out to the gay clubs of the city, introducing me to “the life” for gay men and lesbians of color in a manner I would have never been able to negotiate on my own: living at home, carless, and in the closet with my family at the time. In addition to the Anglo West Hollywood bars, we went to clubs that catered at the time to Chicana/o and black gays and lesbians, places invariably surrounded by laundromats and gas stations, including the fabulous Peanuts and a notorious little club on Sunset called 2326 (the address of the place, cleverly enough), where the butch cholas would get into knife fights over their sexy femme rucasand people would do an incredible amount of coke on the patio out back. We went to dance to Cha-Cha, House, and early techno, as neither of us were big drinkers and sex, at least for me, was mostly abstract at that point. Even though the Squirrel was relatively ugly, he always seemed to land a cute boy on his arm, a curiosity to this day I am unable to account for. In any event, that summer introduced me to the larger urban meanings of gayness, both good and bad, and provided the base for a friendship that continued through my career at PU. I would see the Squirrel when I returned home for holidays, and we maintained a sort of old-fashioned written correspondence mixed with dance tapes sent back and forth.
His decision to apply to my graduate program was initiated by my enrollment, and I helped marshal his application through the process. When he was accepted and decided to move to doctoral town, it was a foregone conclusion we would live together, and after we found the small house and moved in, we settled into a strong domestic routine against the backdrop of the ideological battles happening in the program and at the university. This schism between the personal and the political determined the pattern of our entertaining and socialising, as well as pre-determined the demise of our relationship and my subsequent banishment from town. The program at the time was embroiled in the battles of identity politics that were characteristic of the early nineties, which in some ways can be summed up by the simplistic, naïve dicho of “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
In retrospect, of course, this ready-made sloganistic solution to complicated questions of politics and identity formation does not satisfy, but we were young, relatively politically engaged, and attempting to sort and categorise our way through minefields with the tools we had. At the moment of the arrival of the Squirrel, a critical mass of graduate students and faculty working on Chicana/o cultural studies had emerged on campus, and most of us became friends and from that basis in personal relationships and socialising, began to develop professional networks and projects together. This is pretty standard, in my experience, but when it all goes awry, the professional recriminations echoed through the personal are what compose the elision, the willful forgetting. The interstices of the personal and professional is what is so complicated and messy about the academic machine, how one knows and also “knows” is often grounded in friendship, sexual connection, falling out, and the turning of those personal disagreements into professional antipathies. This is a falta of professionalism, of course, but academic professionalism is always two-thirds personal and one-third (if that) professional.
The Squirrel and I, in our domestic fantasy house, became a powerful social centre. We hosted parties, barbecues, and coffee hours. We held dances, communal Melrose Place viewings, department birthday parties. We made the scene around town in the Squirrel's little Japanese car, sound system booming out some disco tune: Boom! by MC Luscious, Martha Wash, C + C Music Factory, or some other faded diva. Our lives very quickly became closely intertwined, so where it was no longer Oso or the Squirrel, but Oso and the Squirrel, or rather OsoSquirrel, SA. At that point in my life, I preferred such intense interrelationships, the melding of the minds (not the bodies, as I was still a prude) and the incestuous cross-fertilisation of the social and personal, a surrogate family in an unsophisticated, ham-fisted way. Along the way, unrealised on my part, the Squirrel actually moved into my life, the social relationships I had formed, the politics and pronouncements I made, almost like a body snatcher.
Slowly, silently, stealthily, and most likely unintentionally (at least initially), the Squirrel used the foundation of my own life to build his own, so that instead of remarkable contrasts between us, or alternatively a melding that created a new whole, the Squirrel had positioned himself cleverly to replace me. The nickname Squirrel, by the way, comes from the post-mortem by La Martina, who declared, after everything had gone to shit, that the Squirrel was indeed like a squirrel, gathering nuts selfishly for his own winter survival. Similarly, he had the disagreeable habit of being a collectionneuse de bavard, a gossip queen who loved to gather and regale with shocking and personal stories of others but who himself was a closed book, carefully and jealously guarding his own secrets. In other words, the worst type of gossip. The nickname still seems apt, if not a bit cruel, even years later.
Like the plot of the filmic versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the alien clone cannot exist at the same time as the original, where the birth of the clone from the alien seed pod from outer space signals the immediate filmic demise of the original homosapien, my time as a celebrated and controversial star in the program, a fat loud mouth, was incrementally being replaced by the Squirrel making a home for himself, a safe sinecure built through my social and academic work. The contrast would work, later, as a milder, safe, more controllable, version of myself: ersatz Oso. My friends became his friends, my concerns became his concerns, my work became his work, my advisor became his advisor. Being a relatively generous soul, I was not concerned by this mimesis, feeling on some level complemented by it even, although I should have been concerned. Who needs the original when one can have the knock-off was not a principle I was thinking about. The first echoes of concern came from third parties, who began to report some bad-mouthing happening, the negative reportage and chismes of the Squirrel to others about me. Wrapped up in my domestic and social clika, I did not heed the warning of betrayal or possible betrayal. The fantasy felt too good, frankly, to let go. And I was on a trip where the only way to go was down...