When Did I Know

That I was the thing they don’t speak of,
whose nicknames even were unprintable?
Was it all the way back
at school’s beginning, when I knew
and could name the prettiest girl
in answer to my mother’s Who
would you marry
? but didn’t tell
that I could also rank the boys
in tiers of beauty, had anyone asked?

So many moments, so early:
When a boy cousin jumped on top of me
and said Let’s play husband and wife
twelve going on thirteen I had no idea
what that meant, except
it was the first time anyone touched
who wasn’t hitting me. Even through clothes
the feel of flesh on flesh made me tremble.

When my best friend, wrestling
me down on my narrow bed, asked
Why do you always let me win?
and I couldn’t answer.

When I stopped being alone, ever,
with my grandfather, who,
whiskered in his long underwear
would try to pin me down
with sadistic tickling on any day
the women were out of sight.
Because the body is a poem, mine
for my use and not another’s, mine
to discover its vocabulary.

When boys and girls huddled
hushed in a backyard tent,
a new game with much at stake,
showing their forbidden parts
by flashlight, I looked away
at the girls’ turn, then lay awake
remembering the slow unzip
of the boys’ trousers.

When one of the girls
it was dangerous to know
contrived a dozen ways
for me to walk her
through lonely places, woods,
even the night-time graveyard,
and I was a gentleman always.
(And when another, heaped
against me on the dance floor,
finally blurted despairingly,
Don’t my breasts interest you?)

When, as a seventh grader
on the first day of school I watched
in mingled horror/fascination
as senior boys emerged
from the gym class showers,
and then I dreamt of dark caverns
or a secret-passage attic
where all of them,
in an endless state of dressing,
undressing and self-caressing
lined up in an A to Z roll call,
slaves of my eyes’ hunger.

When I watched one after another
Godzilla and Toho monster films
and could not take my eyes off —
no, not the lumbering, costumed
monsters —  but Japanese men,
young ones, hard-cheeked,
dark-eyed and raven-haired,
an urge I could never plummet
to sated boredom.

And why, when I learned
that some men were otherwise inclined,
did my mouth not utter, ever,
the expletives? Surprised, delighted
even, each clue and glimmer
of a kindred species like a key shard,
a piece to be joined with other pieces
until the rainbow bridge could be completed,
my exit up and out of this
world I did not belong to.

If there had been a place to go
to meet them, I would have gone there.

But most of all is that starburst
explosion when you find the one face,
the one accepting glance, the one
surrendered night when all is given,
all asked-for taken with joy,
to know that the love given here
is as cosmic as any force in the universe,
to want and to be wanted by the same person.

I never asked to be normal.
Always and ever,
     for as long as I can remember
I was not like the others,
and the joy-quest yearning
was to find others
     equally blessed, equally scorned.
The names they call us
were nothing compared to the golden vowels,
the sibilants, the fluted song-tones
by which we would greet one another.

Somehow,
     in the dark of nightside passages,
and in the intervals of daylight
they grant us, we find our own,
either the fervent flesh-touch
of youth to youth, or the helping
hand of our elder kind, the lift
and repair of wings broken, hopes
not yet dashed by mortality.
We have our own biology and history.
Our children are the things we make,
our fossils the Trilobites of culture.
Try to imagine the world without us.

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