originally published in Intergeneration: Building Queer Community Across the Ages Through Art (2002)
When I was a boy, I had an ongoing fantasy. I believed that everything I saw was being filmed. My eyes were cameras documenting everything that unfolded before them. The entire world had been constructed solely for my personal benefit. The people I encountered were all acting, pretending to play a role while they were within my view. Sometimes these actors were obligated to play multiple roles, altering their appearance, but not so completely that they didn’t remind me of themselves. When I was out of earshot or eye view, I feared, they laughed about the day’s work of acting out a normal day, laughed about how they had continued to fool me.
But what they didn’t know was that I was not who I seemed to be, either. I was not the first-chubby-then-gangly kid who preferred reading to playing, girls to boys, solitude to friendship. Behind my façade, what I thought of as my “Clark Kent” exterior, lurked a special boy, a super boy, one whose powers I couldn’t name, but which one day would amaze everyone, including himself.
Los Angeles was another world, one where my glamorous grandmother lived. She had flaming red hair and a thick French accent and stylish clothes, and took me to the opera and to parties and to the movies. Often we walked on Hollywood Boulevard and I stepped on the stars in the sidewalk. Sometimes we went to a double feature, and then walked around the corner to see another double bill. Four films back-to-back to back-to-back. Four different worlds that I escaped into, if only for two hours at a time, but long enough to know that they existed somewhere out there. And I knew her world really existed before I was born.
That world was Paris, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, where Gene Kelly danced on the Place de la Concorde, Marie Antoinette ate cake and Jean Valjean escaped through the sewers. My grandmother had been an actress, a real one, and a singer on stage. She had posters of her operas, recordings of her songs, photographs of her father dressed as a king. She cooked peculiar food that I found delicious: braised lettuce, marinated cucumbers, beef tongue, calf brains. What a contrast to the canned soups and frozen vegetables and freeze-dried spices of the suburbs. After an evening’s event, we would return to her apartment and raid the refrigerator, snacking on cold roast chicken, okra, perhaps a small juice glass of Manischewitz loganberry wine.
I was a real person there, one taken seriously, respected. She was a window. And as I look through that window now from the opposite direction, I realize something. I am watching the tapes that I made as a child. All that filming was not in vain. All that footage was properly stored and archived. It wasn’t well labeled, and I couldn’t remember where part of it had been put away, but slowly, reel by reel, I’ve been finding pieces. Sometimes whole scenes, sometimes just a frame or two, outtakes or features, newsreels, cartoons, or previews of coming attractions. They’re all there, somewhere. It is as if the child, unable to interpret his experience, knew to preserve it for someone in the future to help him out of his prison. Like a message carefully inscribed and then folded up and placed in a bottle, the cork pushed in deeply to keep it safe and dry. Pushed in so far that it would be hard to remove. And then the bottle with the summons for help was tossed into the sea of hope. And the boy waited and wondered if anyone would find it and come rescue him. Or would they laugh and not believe it was real and never come.
Little did he know that it would be me who found the tapes. I’d forgotten all about them, didn’t even remember they existed. Didn’t know that it was important for me to watch them again to understand what had happened. Didn’t know that I had to find him as desperately as he had been waiting to be found. Didn’t know that I had become the adult he dreamed of being, of living in a sophisticated city, writing about glamorous singers in cabarets, going to smart parties with intelligent people. Of living alone and not having to share the bathroom or the dinner table or the record player with anyone. Of savoring delicacies like herring and smoke salmon and French cheese whenever he wanted.
I am a writer and a librarian committed to preserving the past, to documenting the present for future generations. And so, surprisingly, now we’re rescuing one another. I have gone back from his future to my past, and we are reunited. We are getting to know one another. And liking one another. And laughing together. And crying together. And trading secrets and dreams and watching movies. Movies about us. Movies that we finally know might have a happy ending.