Monday, August 25, 2008
“The Voyage Out” by Gwyneth Jones excerpt from Periphery: Erotic Lesbian Futures anthology edited by Lynne Jamneck
Periphery - Erotic Lesbian Futures (Anthology)
Publisher: Lethe Press (February 14, 2008)
"The Voyage Out" by Gwyneth Jones
The Kuiper Belt station had been planned as the hub of an international deep space city. Later, after that project had been abandoned and before the Buonarotti Device became practicable for mass exits like this one, it’d been an R&R resort for asteroid miners. They’d dock their little rocket ships and party, escaping from utter solitude to get crazy drunk and murder each other, according to the legends. I thought of those old no-hopers as I followed the guidance lights to my first orientation session; but there was no sign of them, no scars, no graffiti on the drab walls of endless curving corridors. There was only the pervasive hum of the Buonarotti torus, like the engines of a vast majestic passenger liner forging through the abyss. The sound—gentle on the edge of hearing—made me shudder. It was warming up, of course.
In a large bare saloon, prisoners in tan overalls were shuffling past a booth where a figure in medical-looking uniform questioned them and let them by. A circle of chairs, smoothly fixed to the floor or maybe extruded from it, completed the impression of a dayroom in a mental hospital. I joined the line. I didn’t speak to anyone and nobody spoke to me, but the girl with the cinnamon braids was there. I noticed her. My turn came. The woman behind the desk, whom I immediately christened Big Nurse, checked off my name and asked me to take the armband that lay on the counter. “It’s good to know we have a doctor on the team,” she said.
I had qualified as a surgeon but it was years since I’d practiced, other than as a volunteer ‘barefoot’ GP in Community Clinics for the underclass. I looked at the armband that said ‘captain’ and wondered how it had got there, untouched by human hand. Waldoes, robot servitors. . . It was disorienting to be reminded of the clunky, mechanical devices around here; the ones I was not allowed to see.
“Where are you in the real world?” I asked, trying to reclaim my dignity. I knew they had ways of dealing with the time-lapse, they could fake almost natural dialogue. “Where is the Panhandle run from these days? Xichang? Or Houston? I’d just like to know what kind of treatment to expect, bad or worse.”
“No,” said Big Nurse, answering a different question. “I am a bot.” She looked me in the eye, with the distant kindness of a stranger to human concerns. “I am in the information system, nowhere else. There is no treatment, no punishment here, Ruth Norman. That’s over.”
I glanced covertly at my companions, the ones already hovering around the day-room chairs. I’d been in prison before; I’d been in reform camp before. I knew what could happen to a middle-class woman, in jail for the unimpressive ‘crime’ of protesting the loss of our civil liberties. The animal habit of self-preservation won out. I slipped the band over the sleeve of my overalls. Immediately a tablet appeared, in the same place on the counter. It was solid when I picked it up.
I quickly discovered that, of the fourteen people in the circle (there were eighteen names listed on my tablet, the missing four never turned up), less than half had opted to stay awake. I tried to convince the dream-deprived that I had not been responsible for the mix-up. I asked them all to answer to their names. They complied, surprisingly willing to accept my authority—for the moment.
“Hill…de…” said the girl with the cinnamon braids, struggling with a tongue too thick for her mouth: a sigh and a guttural duh, like the voice of a child’s teddy bear, picked up and shaken after long neglect. The braids had not been renewed, fuzzy strands were escaping. Veterans of prison-life glanced at each other uneasily. Nobody commented. There was another woman who didn’t speak at all, so lacking in response you wondered how she’d found her way to the dayroom.
We were nine women, four men and one female-identifying male transsexual (to give the Sista her prison-system designation). The details on my tablet were meagre: names, ages, ethnic/national grouping, not much else. Mrs Miqal Rohan was Iranian and wore strict hejabi dress, but spoke perfect, icy English. ‘Bimbam’ was European English, rail thin, and haunted by some addiction that made her chew frantically at the inside of her cheek. The other native Englishwoman, a Caribbean ethnic calling herself Servalan (Angela Morrison, forty three), looked as if she’d been institutionalised all her life. I had no information about their crimes. But as I entered nicknames, and read the qualifications or professions, I saw a pattern emerging, and I didn’t like it. Such useful people! How did you all come to this pass? By what strange accidents did you all earn mandatory death sentences or life-without-parole? Will the serial killers, the drug cartel gangsters, and the re-offending child rapists please identify yourselves?
I kept quiet, and waited to hear what anyone else would say.
The youngest of the men (Koffi, Nigerian; self-declared ‘business entrepreneur’) asked, diffidently, “Does anyone know how long this lasts?”
“There’s no way of knowing” said Carpazian, who was apparently Russian, despite the name; a slim and sallow thirty-something, still elegant in the overalls. “The Panhandle is a prison system. It can drug us and deceive us without limit.”
The man who’d given his handle as Drummer raised heavy eyes and spoke, sonorous as a prophet, from out of a full black beard. “We will be ordered to the transit chamber as we were ordered to this room; or drugged and carried by robots in our sleep. We will lie down in the Buonarotti capsules, and a code-self, the complex pattern of each human body and soul, will be split into two like a cell dividing. The copies will be sent flying around the torus, at half-light speed. You will collide with yourself and cease utterly to exist at these co-ordinates of space-time. The body and soul in the capsule will be annihilated, and know GOD no longer.’
"But then we wake up on another planet?” pleaded Servalan, unexpectedly shy and sweet from that coarsened mask.
The prophet resumed staring at the floor.
Monday, August 18, 2008
The Emerald Mountain appears in COME THIS WAY, a collection of excerpts and short stories by Victor J Banis.
Come This Way
Regal Crest Enterprises(April 2, 2007)
We are all hearts in exile, stumbling alone in the dark, trying to find the path home. It may well be that God’s greatest gift is the loneliness of the journey.
Rain becomes San Francisco. The purples and pinks and oranges of the Victorians become pastels, the gray leaves turn green again, the sidewalks are washed clean of the dog droppings that tax the unwary pedestrian in the dryer months.
I wasn't there that day, when Simon came up from the station, but I have imagined it so often, have dreamed it so vividly, awake and sleeping, that I have only to close my eyes to see the scene as clearly as if it were memory, and not imagination.
I see him pause at the curb, waiting for the signal, enjoying the rain upon his face. People would look at him. The wind tossed his hair like a lover's fingers, and rouged those marble cheeks. No doubt he smiled. He liked to smile, and when he did it lit up his face in a magical way.
Yes, people looked….
Castro Street was a kaleidoscope of color. On the far corner, in the brightly lit windows of the Peaks, young men watched the passersby, and older men watched the young. A pedestrian, too impatient for the light, darted into the street, skirting cars and their spray. A chorus of horns scolded his audacity.
The light changed. Simon played Dodgem with umbrellas, and paused outside the bar. He felt a twinge of expectation, that sense of something impending.
The rain came down harder. Like a hand in his back, a gust of wind nudged him toward the open door. Inside, the overheated room smelled of damp clothes, of sweat and beer and too many colognes. Glasses clinked, and a murmur of voices competed with one another. He made his way to an unoccupied table.
At least, he would have sworn there was no one there when he sat down, until a voice said, almost in his ear, “I was afraid you wouldn’t get here in time.”
Simon started and turned, and found himself looking into the face of a stranger, a craggy face with a majestic nose and deeply cleft chin; and electric green eyes, fastened directly on his own, compelling attention.
“I’m sorry,” Simon stammered, and half rose to his feet. “I thought the table was empty.”
“No, please. I insist.” The stranger laughed and spread his hands. “The table is large and my drink is small.”
Simon glanced around. The other tables were full and men stood two deep at the bar. Really, it would have been a miracle to find an empty table on a day like this. It was share the table, or fight his way to the bar.
“Well, if you don’t mind." He smiled, and looked out the window, to discourage any intimacy. Outside, passengers jostled to board a bus. A Latina woman with a crying baby in her arms pressed against the bar's window in an effort to avoid the rain.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” the stranger said.
Not very original. Simon sighed, and was half out of his chair, when a young man with a tray on his hip came up and asked, “You want a drink?”
“The way you’ve been bobbing up and down, I wasn’t sure.”
Hawk eyes said, “Order a drink. And do sit down. People are staring.”
“Look, I don’t even know you. I’m sure,” Simon said. Or did he? Surely he would have remembered those eyes, the brows like caterpillars.
The waiter tapped his tray with a cerise fingernail. “Most customers don’t need an introduction before they order," he said, "But you can call me Mary.”
“I meant him,” Simon said.
The waiter cast a quick, bored glance around the room. “There’s a roomful of guys, honey, and I don’t do introductions. If you’re interested in somebody, send him a drink. Or blow a kiss, it’s cheaper. What'll you have?”
“I’m Michael,” the stranger said, and added “He can’t see me.”
Simon asked, "What do you mean, can’t see you?”
The waiter took a nervous step backward. “On second thought, sweetheart, I don’t think you need another drink,” he said. “How about coffee?”
Simon's senses felt oddly heightened. He knew people were watching, he seemed to see them without looking. The music was louder than before and he could hear snippets of conversations.
“Is this some kind of a joke you guys cooked up?” Simon asked.
The waiter took another step back. “Honey, we don’t like trouble here. Maybe you should try another place. How about The Cove, across the street.”
Even before it happened, Simon had stood, turned to look outside, as if he knew the Latina woman was going to scream, as neatly as if they had rehearsed it. She held her baby at arm’s length and shook him.
“My baby,” she shrieked, “He’s stopped breathing.” She looked around frantically, and suddenly stared directly, beseechingly, into Simon’s eyes. “Gran Dios. Save him, save my baby.”
There was a movement toward the door, not a stampede, exactly, but enough that Simon was jostled along. Without knowing exactly how he got there, he was outside, part of the crowd around the sobbing woman. The baby lay on the sidewalk, crimson faced, not breathing. Surely the child was dead.
Thunder rumbled. Simon shivered. It reminded him of—of what? The thought was gone as quickly as it had come. It was just a rainstorm. Just thunder. His hands felt cold and numb. He had no consciousness of moving them and yet, when he glanced down at them he saw them stretch, of their own volition, in the direction of the infant. He seemed to watch from some place outside: he saw himself lean over the child, and asked himself, what is he doing, he’s not a doctor?
The lightning struck right where he was standing. He thought, it's supposed to come before the thunder. It exploded inside his head, a blinding blue-white light. Electricity crackled along his arms and out his fingertips. His senses, preternaturally heightened an instant before, shut down completely.
It might have been seconds or hours before he became conscious of himself again. He felt as if a tornado had lifted him up and carried him a great distance, like Dorothy in that movie. Was he dead? Didn’t people die from lightning strikes?
But no, he was just where he had been, outside the Peaks. The rain still fell. Saturday afternoon traffic rushed by. Everything was as it had been.
Except, a baby was crying and—he realized this more slowly—people were staring, staring wide-eyed at him, mouths agape. He looked down. It was that baby, the one who had surely been dead before, howling lustily and kicking his feet.
“You saved my baby.” The mother scooted around clumsily on her knees and fell against Simon’s legs, seizing them so violently she nearly knocked him over. “He brought my baby back to life!” Her voice rose to a shout.
Simon shook his head in confusion and struggled to break away from her grip.
“What happened?” he asked of no one in particular.
Someone tugged at his sleeve and a voice at his ear said, "We’d better get out of here.”
It was Michael, the stranger from the bar. “What’s going on?” Simon demanded. “Is this some kind of dream?”
Michael leaned so close that Simon thought he meant to kiss him. “In a moment,” he whispered, his eyes glittering with demonic light, “They’re going to collect their wits and all hell will break loose.”
He tugged at Simon’s sleeve. Bewildered, Simon let himself be led. As if under a spell, the onlookers stepped aside, the woman surrendered her hold on Simon's legs, and in a moment, Simon and his companion were around the corner.
“What the hell is this?” Simon demanded, stopping abruptly. “What happened back there?”
“Her baby died,” Michael said, so matter-of-factly, he might have been describing the weather. “You put your hands on him, and he came back to life.”
“You’re…are you crazy? Dead? I never touched him. I never laid a hand on him.”
“You did. You put both hands on his forehead. I saw you. They saw you. What do you think…?”
From the corner behind them, someone shouted, “Hey, you, wait.”
“They’re awake,” Michael said. “Better run for it.”
He began to run and Simon ran with him, with no idea what he was frightened of, what he was running from, or to. He fled across the street, up another, until he couldn’t run any further. Side aching, he staggered against a tree.
“Listen, if you think…” he panted, and turned toward Michael—but there was no Michael, only a middle-aged man walking a spaniel on a leash, twenty feet away, who reversed himself and walked briskly in the opposite direction.
This was where I came into the picture.
I have read a great deal of nonsense about my supposed relationship with Simon. At various times it has been reported that he and I were long time companions, that we were brothers, even, ridiculously enough, that I was his father.
Simon used to laugh at my irritation with that suggestion. “It is possible, you know.”
“Only with the greatest leap of imagination,” I replied.
The truth is, until the day Joe Kelly came to me with his weird assignment, I had never heard of Peter Lucas Simon. Sometimes, I wish it had stayed that way. As any storyteller will tell you, however, some stories the teller chooses, and some stories choose the teller. This was one of the latter, and I will tell it as well as I can.
It has been more than a decade, though, since I seriously attempted to write anything more than the occasional bit of fluff for The Weekly Banner—The Weakly Bladder, as those of us on the staff called our gay newspaper, though not when Joe Kelly was at hand. Whatever limited currency my name may once have possessed has long since faded into nothingness. And writing is like any other form of exercise: you lose the knack of it after a while. It’s not true, about riding a bicycle. I tried after twenty or so years, and fell flat on my ass.
Besides, and this worries me more, so much of what I must write, I know only second hand or have had to conjure. It might be supposed that the time I spent with Simon would give me some insider’s knowledge. Indeed, I was with him often—though had I known the future, that time would certainly have been greater.
“Well,” Simon used to say, “you can’t have a future except at the expense of the present, and the cost is too great.”
Of course, when Joe stopped at my desk that day, I had no inkling there would be any story to tell. I was listening to The Reverend Maxwell Marshall's "Sinner Repent Hour" on the radio. The sin of queerdom was high on Marshall's top-ten list of sins to repent. Those who didn't repent should be eradicated, "in Christ's name". He labeled Matthew Shephard's killers as "heroes". It was hate and evil cloaked in piety, and I found it grimly amusing. I especially liked to watch him on television. It was better than Oprah for a laugh.
Joe parked his shapely rear on one coffee stained corner of my desk and said, “I want you to do an interview."
I took the headphones from my ears. “Talented drag queen? New candle shop? Candidate for Empress?” I had done them all, with equal ineffectiveness.
“I’m not sure what he is.”
I sighed. “Not the Abominable Fag again."
Joe's self control was superhuman. He never laughed at my jokes. “I had a conversation with my friends Bruno and Nate," he said. "You remember them?”
“Bruno, the hot guitarist? He'd be hard to forget. I'm not sure I want to know Nate, if he's the competition.”
"Nate’s his boyfriend. He's been sick.” He gave me a significant look. Of what, I hadn't any idea.
“Half the gay community is sick. It’s a tragic story. It’s not a new story. What we do is news, isn’t it? Silly news, but news, surely. Or is that news to you?”
“Nate is no longer sick.”
“Yes. The new meds. They’ve performed miracles.”
“This appears to be a miracle.” He hesitated. “Just not that particular miracle.”
“Look, Editor-mine, what exactly am I groping for here? You want me to talk to Bruno and Nate?”
“Their neighbor, actually. His name is Peter Simon.”
This pause was even longer. I waited him out. “He healed Nate,” Joe said finally.
“He’s, what, a doctor? A miracle worker?”
“I don’t know what he is. Look, I got a couple of calls last week. Something very interesting happened on Saturday, at the Peaks.”
“Now that's a miracle,” I said. "Wait, I've heard that one. Some guy waved a magic wand and brought a dead woman back to life."
“It was a baby."
“Okay, a baby brought a woman back to life, that’s easy to explain. Mass hallucination. A really boring afternoon. Too many cocktails.”
“At least thirty people saw it."
“Thirty people saw something. I saw a two-headed calf once. Honest. Drinking Cutty. I had the damndest time getting rid of him the next morning. Taurus is a bad sign for me.”
“From the descriptions, this Peter Simon could have been the one at the Peaks,” Joe said, undaunted.
Joe and I looked hard at one another. I looked hard at a coffee stain on the table. If you looked at it long enough, you could make out the face of the Virgin Mary. “Let me see if I’m tuned in here,” I said. “You found Jesus in drag and you want me to interview him? My friend Lena said he'd be a leather dyke this time. Is this turning anti-lesbian? Joe, we publish a weekly gay rag which is read by very few, none of whom has heretofore exhibited any interest in matters religious or philosophical. Why us? Why me?”
“Because it’s the only newspaper I edit,” Joe said. He grinned and blew me a kiss. He was cute. He was exasperating. ”And because you’re the most intelligent person I know.”
Okay, he was also perceptive. “Moe and Curly will not like hearing that,” I said. We both knew I had lost the argument.
“Just talk to him. Okay?" He handed me a slip of paper with an address on it. "Talk to Bruno and Nate first. See me when you finish.” He walked away.
“I’m getting too old for this,” I said, but Joe was already out of hearing.
Monday, August 11, 2008
At the beginning of the Second World War, after the fall of France, Churchill decided to demilitarize the islands in the English Channel, Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, and Sark, and allow their occupation by Germany because their proximity to France rendered them impossible to defend. Much of what took place in the ensuing five years has been long-suppressed; it contradicts the image projected by Churchill of Brits fighting Nazis to the last man. The situation was much more complex, with some citizens resisting the occupiers at every turn, and others, including many local government officials, deciding that collaboration was the safest strategy. In War on the Margins by Libby Cone, we see the effects of this upon clerk Marlene Zimmer, the child of a deceased Jewish father and Gentile mother. A lonely, neurotic woman in her late twenties, she abruptly leaves her home to avoid registering as a Jew. She hides with the (real-life)Lesbian Surrealist artists-turned-Resistance-propagandists Claude Cahun (Lucille Schwob) and Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe) and becomes active in their Resistance work, only to find later that the decision she made to inform on a former coworker may have had disastrous repercussions. After Schwob's and Malherbe's arrest, Marlene later meets and hides with Peter, an escaped slave worker. They fall in love. We follow Suzanne and Lucille as they suffer in German military prison, and revisit Marlene as she slowly realizes that the decisions she made resulted in the imprisonment of one woman and the saving of the life of another. She is able to learn something from her five-year ordeal and look to the future with a newfound hope and inner toughness. Suzanne and Lucille also come to terms with the fact that, faced with the machinery of destruction and conquest, people respond in different ways. The two women acknowledge the impossibility of conferring revenge or reward upon every individual who has crossed their path.
This book contains many documents from the Jersey archive, including translations from the French of Claude Cahun's prison notes and diaries.
War on the Margins
BookSurge (April 24, 2008)
St. Brelade, Jersey
In Europe, rutabagas are known as “swedes.” Hard, unlovely, humble. Something to use as a side dish at the occasional meal, hot and mashed and dressed with butter, a tiny sprinkle of nutmeg. Now it is a vegetable of exigency, the main course, the roast, the joint, the centerpiece, the star.
Suzanne Malherbe was in charge of the menu at La Rocquaise, as well as the director of graphic design. To her the swede had become just another medium, a tabula rasa. When there was enough wood to be had, she would just boil them up on the stove, chou-navettes, topped with a milligram of butter and a grind of pepper, hungrily devoured by Lucille and herself. Now that fuel supplies were unreliable, she had to be more creative. She found that slightly dried-out swedes were more amenable to being formed into sculptures and bas-reliefs; they had a somewhat more yielding consistency to the paring knife. She kept a small collection of them undergoing this curing process in a box in the cellar. Today she had two good-sized ones weighing perhaps a half kilogram in toto; she peeled them and put them on the cutting board. The peels would be dried for soup.
Suzanne stood back and regarded them gravely. Taking up her knife, she began cutting regular slices and putting them in a single layer on another board. Then she took each slice and made it something; one was a flower with an eye in the center. Another was a rabbit with wings. She carefully formed a breast with a clock, a seashell with wheels, a pair of pursed lips. She arranged the slices on two plates, poured two glasses of white wine, put it all on a tray, and took them out to Lucille in the dining room. Lucille rose, smiled and kissed her when she came in, then looked intently at the plates.
“Cherie! They're wonderful! You are a true genius! Without a doubt, nobody eats their swedes this way in Nantes”
“Thank you, cherie.”
“To the Resistance!” they cried, clinking glasses. They took up their forks and slowly chewed the transformed swedes. A half loaf of potato bread on the table, initially shunned, was more palatable after their first glass of wine.
“It is at two?” asked Suzanne.
“Yes. I already have the songs typed.”
“Wonderful! And the disguises?”
“Let's wear the same wigs and different coats this time!”
Suzanne cleared the dishes away and began to brew some tea. “We need to celebrate before our revolutionary action!”
“But of course!”
Lucille took out a flat box containing a profusion of pastel-colored tissue paper. Another box contained pens and colored pencils. All were laid on the dining table. Lucille removed an large envelope from underneath the blank papers and took out about twenty variously handwritten and typewritten notes. “Please proofread them once more, cherie; I worry I may not have copied your German correctly.”
Suzanne scanned the pages. They were copies of a song the women had written:
“We are the heroes of the Master Race,
“We are the German soldiers.
“We have defeated all of Europe
“And seen the coast of Dover”
“And if I come home for the holidays,
“And my wife's belly is big as a boulder,
“ ‘Baby, don't get mad at me,’ she'll say,
“ ‘The Fatherland needs more soldiers!’ ”
“Then I slog my way to Russia,
“Three years in the ice of the Devil.
“At the end I am a sight to see,
“My nose like a blackened pebble.”
“And if I come home for the holidays...”
“My skin was burnt to blisters,
“As I warmed up in Africa's weather,
“The meat was rotten, the water stank,
“My burnt eyes as thick as leather.”
“And if I come home for the holidays...”
“Forward, to the sea! To America!
“Five years sailing around
“Never once dropping the anchor!
“How many of us will be drowned!”
“And if I come home for the holidays...”
“I hurry back with empty hands
“To the new-old Europe, the home I desire:
“The Japanese have laid waste Berlin
“With slashing swords and fire!”
“And if I come home for the holidays...”
“And round and round the world this dance of death
“Goes faster and faster,
“Until we can no longer fight;
“And overthrow our masters!”
“And if I come home for the holidays
“My wife will be looking much older,
“ ‘Baby, to bed!’ she'll say to me
“ ‘The Fatherland needs more soldiers!’ ”
“I wish we could write music to it; they would be singing it all over the island. I will add some finishing touches.” Suzanne took up some pens and made a few corrections. After she had blotted the ink and pronounced herself satisfied, the two women began balling up the papers like so much trash. They stuffed all the wads into two large handbags. Then they repaired upstairs to dress. Lucille took out a brown wig and stuffed her short red hair under it. Suzanne was handed a blonde wig; she did the same. Lucille, so used to dressing in various costumes in her younger days as the photographer Claude Cahun, took easily to most disguises, although she preferred male dress. Suzanne, who had been the graphic designer Marcel Moore, had never thought of herself as a costume artist who played with identities; she was learning quickly. She removed her smock and trousers and pulled on a thick sweater and a black wool skirt. Lucille added some bourgeois costume jewelry to her wine-colored dress. They threw on shapeless lightweight coats. A little touch of lipstick and they were off.
First they walked past the St. Brelade's Bay Hotel. They bought newspapers which they tucked under their arms; these could be used as tubes for launching the crumpled paper through a half-open car window. There were few cars there now, so they proceeded to the cemetery where the graveside service had begun.
A young enlisted man had committed suicide. It probably had something to do with the deployment of the Afrika Korps. This occasion was fertile ground for their cause. Lucille and Suzanne walked towards the vehicles parked next to the cemetery. They avoided the hearse and walked from the back of the line forward. Many windows were open to air out the cars; they surreptitiously dropped paper wads through these windows and moved up the line. When they felt themselves getting too conspicuous, they walked into the cemetery proper, joining other curious civilians, and stood through the ceremony. It was a brilliantly sunny day; the enlisted men, already in a state of poor morale, were given permission to remove their coats, and they slung them over their arms. The two women walked by the clusters of men standing at parade rest, brushing by their coats, slipping wads of paper into the occasional exposed pocket. They kept a somber expression on their faces which blended in with the expressions of the other attendees. When those assembled began to sing “Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles,” they gave each other sly looks and muttered curses. Most of the other civilians looked equally uncomfortable, and left as soon as the song was over.
After the young enlisted men were marched away and the officers headed for their cars. Suzanne and Lucille hung back, slowing their steps, until the Germans were gone and the other onlookers had dispersed. They stopped outside the little fisherman's chapel to share a cigarette. “Well, cherie,” said Suzanne, “they continue to commit suicide. I regret the loss of life, but I think it is a good sign, don't you?”
“Well, if what we heard on the BBC is true, the war is not going our way yet. But if they are already committing suicide, things are bad for them, and will get worse.”
“I suppose no army ever lost because of many suicides, though?”
“No, cherie, I am not aware of any.” They gazed out to the sea for a silent minute. “But it shows that we are not here for retirement, but once again for the advance of revolution and freedom. We are not old aunties yet!” Lucille coughed as she chuckled and exhaled, and handed Suzanne the cigarette.
Suddenly they were startled by the chapel door opening. Suzanne dropped the cigarette. A bedraggled young woman emerged, walking a bicycle.
Monday, August 4, 2008
“Jesus instructed us to forgive those who have wronged us seventy times seven times,” Brother Vito Fortunato teaches the boys in his high school religion class, but it's Vito himself who has the most trouble with forgiveness: trying to forgive the Church, the gay community, and most of all, himself. Just a few months from his final vows as a Brother in the Catholic Church, Vito finds himself at a crossroads, torn between his spirituality and his sexuality as a fully out and proud gay man. Will a summer of volunteer work at an AIDS center in San Francisco—and a love affair with Gabriel, a recently divorced landscaper—help Vito decide his calling—and his future?
Seventy Times Seven by Salvatore Sapienza is a poignant, sexy, funny, and romantic novel set in the early 1990s about a young man's struggle to integrate his religious beliefs with his sexual desires. The gap between sexuality and spirituality is punctuated throughout the novel with quotes from the Scripture, and from song lyrics from Prince and Madonna, artists who merged the two worlds in provocative and groundbreaking fashion. Vito struggles too, with the idealism that drives his desire to change the archaic ways of the Catholic Church and its views on AIDS and homosexuality.
Seventy Times Seven
Publisher: Lethe Press (1st edition June 30, 2006)
“I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through raging waters they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned.”
--The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Chapter 43, Verses 1-3
All the incoming freshmen boys at Mount Saint Vincent’s High School were issued gym uniforms with their last names emblazoned in black block letters across the backs of their gray t-shirts. This was primarily so the P.E. teachers, who had classes of more than sixty students per session, could easily identify each boy. “Hey, Simmons, stop rough-housing!” “Owens, pick up the pace!” That sort of thing.
Poor Paul Ness. Since he and his identical twin brother, Matt, were in the same P.E. class, the Ness boys were issued shirts embroidered not only with their last names, but also with their first initials. The taunting of Paul started on the first day of gym class, when Brother O’Malley - during a hellish round of dodge ball – yelled, “You’re out, P. Ness!”
“Brother O’Malley called that kid a penis,” one boy whispered. Soon, laughter spread throughout the gym, with only Brother O’Malley clueless as to what was so funny.
Paul was just one of the twenty-five students in my freshmen religion class. As a new teacher, I was thrilled when the semester started out well, but as the months wore on, I gradually began losing control. To keep my students focused, I tried every trick I had learned in my education classes at NYU. I incorporated popular music, art, role-playing, but despite my best efforts, my freshmen class was still off-the-wall. When it’s Friday afternoon, last period of the day, two months prior to summer vacation, nobody wants to be in school, teachers included. I denied my students’ request to start a “countdown” of days-left-to-the-end-of-the-school-year in one corner of the chalkboard, although I secretly was keeping track of it myself in my day planner.
Brother McCallister who had been teaching at Mount Saint Vincent’s High School for thirty years (in fact, he was my teacher when I was a freshman at the school) suggested giving tests that period. “It’ll force them to sit down and shut up,” he said. Although this greatly conflicted with my philosophy of teaching, I decided to give it a try. At that point, protecting my sanity was more important than maintaining my demagogy.
The test idea worked for only a few weeks. First off, there were only so many questions I could ask each Friday. I taught religion, and the class only met every other day for forty-five minutes. How could I turn a lesson on the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, for example, into a forty-five minute exam? Jesus may have been able to stretch out the food and keep the masses satisfied, but I had difficulty stretching out the multiple-choice questions. I thought about giving essay exams instead, but soon realized that even though it would keep the students quiet longer, it meant that I was stuck reading twenty-five essays each weekend. I may have vowed poverty, chastity, and obedience, but I was unwilling to make that sacrifice. I was only twenty-five years old, and I had a life, despite what my students may have thought.
I then resorted to turning Friday into game day, with a religious twist, of course. One class period, a particularly rowdy game of biblical hangman took place. Jessie Pace had asked to buy a vowel for the three-lettered puzzle of which the letters J and B had already been successfully chosen as the first and last letters, respectively, by members of his team. When Jessie then asked to buy an E, all hell broke loose.
“Jeb?? You idiot!! There’s no Jeb in the bible!” screamed Fidel, the captain of Jessie’s team.
“That’s the old dude from ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’,” laughed Vince. “Let me tell you a little story about a man named Jeb,” he sang.
“It’s not Jeb. It’s Jed,” Miquel said.
“It is? I always thought it was Jeb,” said Vince. “Hey, Brother, is the guy from ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ named Jeb or Jed?”
There was now total chaos in the classroom. If an administrator had walked in, how would I possibly explain the noise, the hung stick figure on the board (was he hung or hanged?), and a discussion of Buddy Ebsen’s character’s name?
“Okay, guys, settle down,” I pleaded. And then, in my desperation, I pounded my fists on my desk. This got everyone’s attention, as I rarely lost my cool. “We still have forty more days left of school,” I said, thereby giving away my secret countdown. “That means ten more Fridays. You guys are excellent during the week, but Fridays are always out of control. You’ve gotta help me out here. I will take any and all suggestions.”
Vince enthusiastically volunteered, “Let’s make it movie day.”
“Vince, this is a religion class,” I said. “I don’t know if I could stomach watching Charlton Heston for the next ten Fridays. What other religious-themed movies can you guys come up with?”
“ What about Last Temptation of Christ?” Jessie suggested.
“You want to get me fired, Jessie,” I said.
“But you’re a Brother. Could they really fire you for showing us that?” asked Miguel.
“I don’t want to find out,” I said.
“I think it’s so stupid that they banned it,” said Jesse. “They ended up bringing more attention to it.”
“Hey,” interrupted Vince, “my mom was one of those protestors. The movie totally blasphemes Jesus. I mean they show him making out with Mary Magdalene.”
“Did you or your mom actually see the movie?” Jesse asked Vince.
“No,” Vince replied.
“How can you protest a movie you haven’t even seen?” Jesse asked.
“What do you think about the movie, Brother?” Fidel asked.
“I’ve seen it,” I said, causing quite a few shocked freshmen faces. “C’mon guys, I’m an Italian from Brooklyn. It’s basically a requirement for me to see every Scorsese movie.”
“How could a Brother see a movie that the Church is against?” asked Vince. “Isn’t that against your vows?”
“No, it’s not,” I replied. “Actually, I found the movie deeply moving. If anything, it only helped me to better understand my vows. Seeing a more human Jesus struggling with his calling and dealing with desires was much more relatable to me than the images of Jesus I grew up with. When I was growing up, we had a picture hanging in our living room of Jesus with the Sacred Heart bursting out of His chest. It used to give me the creeps.”
I knew my students could benefit from watching and discussing the movie, but incurring the wrath of the administration – and Vince’s mother – was something I was unwilling to deal with.
“Look, guys, the movie’s rated ‘R,’ so I can’t show it to you anyway. What other religious movies can you think of?” I asked.
Silence from the masses.
“Anyone?” I asked, and then in my best Ben Stein voice, “Bueller? Bueller?”
This elicited laughter and eased the tension of my fist-pounding moment. Finally, Fidel said, “Why don’t you tell us about you?”
“What do you mean? Tell you what?” I asked inquisitively.
“About you. About why you decided to become a Brother,” he said.
“Would you guys really be interested in that?” I bewilderedly asked.
“Yeah,” said Miquel matter-of-factly. “I mean it is pretty weird for somebody like you to do something like that.”
“What do you mean ‘somebody like me’?” I hesitantly said.
“I mean all the other Brothers are like old and ugly, but you can like still get a lot of girls,” Miguel said to the laughter of the rest of boys.
“Yeah, my sister saw your picture in the yearbook,” added Jesse, “and she said you’re a real fox.”
“Tell your sister I’m flattered,” I said humbly, “but I don’t see how a discussion about me fits in to the curriculum of this class.”
“You’ve got to be kidding, Brother,” Fidel boldly exclaimed. “It’s exactly the point of this class. I mean what better way of learning about religion than through a young guy who’s giving up everything for it?”
Fidel’s response floored me, which was not atypical. Fidel was the only freshman in the school who needed to shave on a daily basis, and his physical development was on par with his emotional maturity. On the first day of class, I thought maybe he was a senior walking into the wrong classroom, but, no, there was his name on my class roster. Hey, if twenty-something actor Jason Priestly could be cast as a high school student in that new Fox television series, Beverly Hills 90210, then, I assumed, Fidel Moreno could be a freshman at Mount Saint Vincent’s High School in Flushing 11357.
Of course, Fidel’s latest suggestion that I talk to the class about myself made perfect sense, but I wasn’t sure how comfortable I’d be talking about my personal life in front of teenage boys. This was not a group that was shy about asking personal questions, especially those of a sexual nature. Although I could see the benefit of such a question-and-answer period, I knew that my responses would have to be genuine, or they’d call me on it. One of the great things about teenagers is they can see through all the bullshit answers they get from adults.
“That’s not a bad suggestion, Fidel,” I finally responded. “Let me think about it this weekend, and I’ll let you guys know next week. Now, before we go, we need to talk about seventy times seven.” I wrote the mathematical equation on the board. “Open your New Testaments to Matthew, Chapter Eighteen, verses twenty-one and twenty-two. Paul would you read this aloud for us?”
Since Paul was teased so much about his name, I tried my best to empower him by giving him special tasks like delivering notes to the office or reading aloud. I always made sure to praise him for a job well done.
Paul read slowly, “Then Peter went up to Jesus and said, ‘Lord, how often must I forgive my neighbor if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy times seven times.”
“Nicely read, Paul,” I said supportively. “Thanks. Now, what do you guys think Jesus meant by this?”
Studious Anthony was first to raise his hand. “Well, if you do the math, that’s four hundred and ninety times. So, if your neighbor wrongs you four hundred and ninety one times, then you don’t have to forgive him.”
While some boys in the class snickered at Anthony’s response, others facial expressions seemed to indicate that they were very seriously considering its validity. Such is the case when teaching a class of twenty-five fourteen year olds, some of whose voices hadn’t yet changed, while others were sprouting wisps of hair above their upper lips forming pathetically weak moustaches.
“Okay,” I laughed and rolled my eyes, knowing full well before I called on him that Anthony’s response would be so analytical. “That’s one way of looking at it. Who has another interpretation?”
Fidel responded, “I don’t think Jesus wanted Peter to take it that literally. I think Jesus was saying that we have to forgive people over and over again, even if they keep screwing with us. I’ve got a problem with that. Are you saying that if somebody raped my little sister, that I need to forgive him? I couldn’t do that once, let alone four hundred and ninety times. Could you do that, Brother?”
“I don’t know, Fidel,” I replied, “but I know that’s what Jesus is calling us to. Nobody said being a Christian was easy. In fact, in our world today, it’s a real challenge, isn’t it? Is there anybody in the class willing to share a personal story of forgiveness?”
Once again, silence, and lots of eye-contact avoidance. What did Robin Williams do to get the boys’ attention in Dead Poet’s Society? Should I stand on top of my desk?
“Nobody in this room has ever forgiven somebody?” I said incredulously. “I can’t believe that.”
“How ‘bout you, Bro? I mean, if Fridays are going to become ‘Ask Brother Vito’ days, this is as good a day as any to start,” Fidel warmly challenged.
At that moment, the bell rang, ending the period and the school day. “Well, guys, like Screech, I’m saved by the bell,” I exclaimed as students started standing up and grabbing the books from under their desks. I shouted, “Okay, don’t go anywhere, guys! Your homework for the weekend is to write about a time in your life when you needed to forgive someone. Please don’t ask me how many pages. I’d rather have half a page of truth, than three pages of b.s. Okay? Great. Enjoy your weekend.”
“We still want to hear your forgiveness story,” smiled Fidel as he walked past my desk.
“Okay. I’ll do the homework, too,” I said. “Hey, Fidel. Have you considered going on the freshman retreat next weekend? It’s your last chance, you know.”
“I’m not sure, Brother,” he responded. “It’s not praying all weekend is it?”
“Of course not,” I replied. “The Brothers have a beautiful retreat house upstate in Poughkeepsie, where you can hike, swim, fish. It’s just about getting away for the weekend, away from the city. To be honest, there is some prayer involved, but it’s something I think you would find worthwhile.”
“I’ll talk it over with my mom and let you know on Monday,” Fidel said.
“Good deal, and thanks for the suggestion about ‘Ask Brother Vito’ day. I think that could work,” I said. Fidel smiled proudly. “So, do you have a lot of homework this weekend?”
“Yeah, I got to read this stupid story for English,” he said. “ ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’ by Hawthorne. You ever read it?”
“I probably did back in high school, but I don’t remember it,” I said. “Well, despite that homework and mine, try to have a good weekend, okay?”
“You, too, Brother,” Fidel said. When he got to the doorway, he turned around. “What do you guys do on the weekends, anyways? I mean can you go out and stuff?”
“Let’s make that the first question for ‘Ask Brother Vito Day,’ okay Fidel?” I said.
“Cool. Well, whatever you do, have fun. If you’re allowed to, I mean.”