Broken Fever: Reflections of Gay Boyhoodby James Morrison
A vibrant essay collection that explores the origins of one gay man's identity
are the roots of personal identity? In this collection of beautifully crafted essays, James Morrison searches for answers within the experiences and
emotional reality of his own childhood in an attempt to pinpoint the beginnings of his gay self-identity.
"Although from the vantage point of my present self, I do not remember a time in my life when I was not `gay,' I know that the arrival at any avowed identity is always a complex process of affirmation and negation, refusal and identification:' It is this process, and specifically the ways gay identity circulates before it is even spoken, that Morrison seeks to distill in specific experiences. From the beginnings of questioning his religion to exploring his first boyhood attraction, Morrison's experiences are chronicled honestly and compellingly. The result is revealing and intriguingan engrossing look at one happy childhood. It is an exploration with which anyonegay or straight, young or oldcan identify.
About the Author:
James Morrison teaches English at North Carolina State University and lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Many of his essays have been previously published in anthologies and journals. This is his first book.
"Broken Fever isn't an easy book to place, but it belongs on your bookshelf—somewhere between Marcel Proust and David Sedaris."—Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, author of Epistemology of the Closet and A Dialogue on Love
"Measured, funny, extremely elegant."—Allan Gurganus, author of The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
"Rarely is [childhood] written about in as fresh a manner . . . Broken Fever exquisitely mixes essay, memoir, fiction."—The Advocate
"Morrison's essays ring with fine-tuned, dead-on language . . . Illuminating and heartbreaking."—Lambda Book Report
"Morrison brings the authorial power of a fiction writer, philosophical density, and cinematic drive to these pages. He is a master stylist, and this is literary nonfiction at its best."—Mary Cappello, author of Night Bloom
"[An] elegantly crafted exploration of growing up homosexual and Catholic. His delicate, extended examination of difference—in the classroom, on the playground, in his family and even as a reader—make[s] this nuanced memoir resonate . . . Morrison's memoir has a freshness and rich depth that set it apart."—Publishers Weekly
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 4.26(w) x 10.20(h) x 0.70(d)
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Fourteen years old, smack in the middle of the 1970s, and I thought that everything I knew, or needed to know, about religion could easily be contained, like a pair of quiescent worshipers in a big pew, in two sentences. I believe in one God was the first, intoned weekly in my Profession of Faith in a booming voice that then trailed off into the assured murmur of the following sentencesonly, after all, less condensed versions of the all-important one. The other sentence was the pale underside of the leafy, bright, manifest first, its hidden mate, seldom spoken, always assumed, the deep principle of everything: I am a Catholic.
Yet even though I took these simple declarations as a sort of irrefutable basis for my self, I was aware from an early age of not quite right in the strain of my Catholicism. During mass I was subject to dual impulses. I wanted to give myself up, to surrender myself wholly to rapture, and I could not understand why, if we really believed what we said on Sunday mornings, we should go on with our lives in the ordinary way the rest of the week. But we did, so I wanted also to resist my passions. Yet how I loved the flamboyant artifice of the mass, the resplendent escape, the exaggerated display! I could not help noticing, though, that I was not really supposed to love exactly these elements (yet, plainly, there they were!) or to love them in quite this way, or with quite this ardor. Something was obviously amiss, and religion came to signify for me a particular relationship to the ordinary. It was, itself,out ofthe ordinary: all that pageantry circulating, in a world of its own, with a kind of hysterical control, around the figure of a beautiful, doomed, naked man impaled on a cross. And at the same time my relation to it was not the ordinary one. Because I longed to be ordinary, I installed those two sentences as the cornerstone of my being, even as another, inverse sentence involuntarily formed itself within me, increasingly simplified, gradually stripped of equivocation, as the first two sentences grew ever more complex, sprouting modifying shoots. That sentence, the new one, I spoke finally when I was nineteen years old: I am a homosexual.
I had recently moved with my family from one suburb to another farther away from Detroit, better insulated from the city by distance and cost, and one of the many distressing effects of the move, I soon discovered, was that it made necessary renewed avowals of identity. Nobody in our old neighborhood needed to be told who I was, or what. I was known. I was "Jimmy," good-natured loner, spelling-bee champion, Catholic, bad in sports but too amiable to be mocked, a bookworm, a tease who in turn could take his share of ribbing except in certain well-known and carefully avoided areas: bad eyesight, thick glasses, freckles, general scrawniness giving way to increasing huskiness. This identity had grown within me like the white sap coating the inner walls of a dandelion's hollow mauve stalka charged image for my own mythologies of lost innocence, in memory of happy mid-spring hours spent decapitating yellow-headed weeds to suck their essence until the day Bobby Adams from down the block told me the white stuff was the flower's come. Then I had not had to think about who I was. Now we were leaving my best friend, a house I loved, teachers who already knew in advance how smart I was, to whom I did not have to prove myself, in order to move into a new house, the lone structure in a still-unbuilt subdivision, surrounded by expanses of mud with here and there big rectangular holes, the basements of future houses, like craters in a lunar landscape. On top of that, I was expected to make myself known all over, or possibly even to remake myself, to endure yet again the humiliations of mutable but tenacious self-hood. During our first week in the new house I was riding my bike along a street in an established neighborhood next to our undeveloped one when a girl called to me from one of the porches. It was a rainy afternoon, and my slicker hung heavy on my shoulders, its yellow flaps concealing the shape of my body. My long hair fell in mid-seventies bangs across my forehead. The girl looked at me critically and tonelessly inquired, "Are you a boy or a girl?" I rode away without answering. This was not, I knew, going to be easy. I was going to have to start from scratch.
Is to speak one's identity always necessarily to reinvent it? If so, that would explain the existence of manifold structures through which the institutions we live by routinely keep even the most public facets of identity from being spoken. In elementary school, my identity as a Catholic was regularly made public, through regulations seemingly designed precisely so that I would never be called upon to speak it, so that it could be made to go without saying. On Wednesday afternoons, I and my fellow Catholics were excused from school early, whisked away without explanation, herded into buses, and transported the half mile to St. Cletus for what must have seemed to our classmates, left behind, the inexplicable, exclusionary ritual of catechism. Election, communion: these are common terms in the public rhetoric of religious affiliation, but what is seldom noted is how the exclusionism the concepts engender threatens the quality of unspokenness they are meant to guarantee. The ritual itself, whatever it was we did during those Wednesday afternoon disappearances, may have remained undiscussable, mysteriously beyond the reach of those social categories given to white middle-class suburban late-baby-boom ten-year-olds. But its trappings came in for thorough public scrutiny from the non-Catholics. For example, the bus that took us to catechism was the special-ed bus, squat, squarish, half the length of the normal bus with its big, sleek, rounded fenders. Our status as catechism-goers was therefore linked to the outward signs of abnormality, and Bobby Adams, irrepressible truth-teller, unleashed a gleeful weekly screed on the subject: "Retard bus, retard bus, you're going on the retard bus, they're getting it all ready for you, they're washing out the retard puke, hope you don't pick up too many retard germs!" It was also Bobby Adams who first articulated the disquieting properties of the very word that named this unknowable act, this hebdomadal vanishing, with its remote but still distinct suggestions of kissingevoking the kissing of cats, of others, of other boys.
What Bobby Adams could not have known, of course, was that though we may have felt called on to defend catechism, the word was at least as disturbing to us as to them. For it could not be lost on us that, in spite of the appearance of legitimation, a rhetoric of shame attended our Catholicism. It was, in fact, a socially authorized intrusion on normality, on normal desire. Though sanctioned by the school, it was understood as somehow ineffable, deeply private, a facet of personal identity, an ingrained attribute that, though chosen, was uncontrollable, seen as so profoundly rooted as to render choice nugatory; and was necessarily associated, despite its apparent social accommodation as a simple fact, with obsession, compulsive repetition, inner yearnings, ultimate dispositions. More than once was I enjoined to be proud of my Catholicism, and I saw that the injunction implied the previously unimagined possibility of pride's opposite.
It was weird, a weird thing that was somehow accepted. And my relation to it, to this weird thing, was not like other people's, and so the weirdness was compounded. If common society ever finds a way of acknowledging or legitimating "alternative sexualities"a possibility one can imagine only with ambivalencethat acknowledgment will probably in its early phases resemble this sanctioning of religious observance. What I knew then about inhabiting inverse identities, I learned from being Catholic.
But I was fourteen, and had only those two sentences to go by, the creed of an accepted silence. All I knew was that we were changing churches just as we were changing houses and schools. Like the other houses in our neighborhood, our new church was still under construction, so mass took place with folding chairs and portable lecterns in the cafetorium of the junior high school I attended every day. The name of the parish was St. René, and the nuns wore ordinary dresses beneath a chaste wimple. The priests did not chant their prayers but spoke them in a normal voice, and they told jokes during their sermons. A man with hair as long as mine played guitar during the hymns. People wore blue jeans to mass. How different this was from St. Cletus, with its aura of transcendent permanence and its otherworldly ritual, its exacting separation from the habits of daily life. To get to mass at St. René, even though we went in by the back door of the school that was named for a failed astronaut, we still had to pass the gym and the music room where my French class met.
Gradually I came to see that my experience with churchgoing would exist in a new relation to the idea of the ordinary. Where formerly I had been susceptible to a kind of effortless transport from the modes of everyday life in church, now I was surrounded by them, and what church would have to be about was the nexus between the ordinary and the extraordinary. During mass I watched one of the altar boys light the candles and prepare the altar. His face was angular and sharp-boned, with a prominent jaw and dark eyes that glowed with concentration as he moved slowly, ritually, extending a flame from elevated candle to candle. Then his air of solemn caution disappeared, and he drew back his staff, like a fisherman briskly drawing in his line, and blew out the flame at the end of it. He walked to his seat with an easy, loping gait. When he sat, easing his flattened hands palm down beneath his robed thighs, I saw that he was wearing corduroys and sneakers under his vestments.
All summer my mother said she was sick of seeing me mope around by myself. Mothers she was meeting as the neighborhood grew had boys my age, and she kept threatening to get me in on their ball games. But I refused. Deprived of the friends who had surrounded me all my life, I decided it was time that friendship, like other aspects of identity, became for me a function not of proximity but of choice. By the end of the first week of eighth grade, quirks of fate provided me with three suitable but very different friends. Kevin, my table mate in algebra, was a football player who looked like Robbie in My Three Sons. Ronny, my locker partner in gym, wore leather jackets that smelled of cigarette smoke; he had a ready, trilling laugh that sounded like an imitation of Cousin Itt. Craig was my chemistry lab partner, and the difficulty I had in placing him was explained for me in one of our first conversations when he spoke with conviction a sentence parallel to the one I recited so often by rote. "I am a Baptist," he said. The compartmentalized, hierarchic nature of junior-high culture made it possible to keep the three of them completely separate from one another. Faced with the challenge of reinventing myself, I saw each of the three as emblematic of a potentially separate destiny, and I wanted the freedom to explore each possibility in isolation, to see how it suited me in theory. Kevin was a Catholic like me, but the destiny he represented was by far the least likely one, that of jockhood. Ronny held out the promise of delinquency, with tales of bad trips, crime sprees, and sexual indulgence that always sounded remarkably like the plots of whatever movies were out that week. Craig was an intellectual companion, a fellow member of the chess club, from whom I could learn, who might lead me toward asceticism. No matter which of the three by turns equally appealing fates I finally accepted, I knew I wanted to go somewhere, and I knew I would have to be led there.
At that age I could no more invent the man I have become than I can now fully imagine the boy I was. From time to time I would try to do so, to foresee the cars I might drive, the jobs I might hold, the women I might marry, the children I might have. But whatever pictures of this domesticated future my imagination supplied always lacked fullness and conviction. They were like images in a child's gray plastic viewfinder: dim, distant, static, reduced. Should I have been able to imagine in more ample detail my possible adult lives? Were others able to do so? It certainly seemed so: Kevin was already able in rhapsodic tones to describe his wife and kids. What was it that prevented me from similarly being able to enter the world of projected time? Would this lack recede as I grew, as the very time I felt I could not invent for myself transpired, unstoppable, with purposes of its own? Or would I be crippled by whatever it was that was missing? Would I wear all my blighted life the outer marks of this lackdisproportionate limbs or the explosive scars of uncontrollable acneunmistakable traces of a troubled transmutation into adulthood?
I can't say that these questions tormented me, if only because I wasn't then able to formulate them in exactly this way. But I began to glean, through the ways I was able to formulate them, that this growing sense of something missing derived from my having taken too much about myself for granted. Maybe the move would instill, in the end, the ambiguous benefit of self-consciousness. When someone in school asked me why I never said anythingfor I spoke willingly only to Kevin, Ronny, or CraigI gave the stock answer that I remembered from the old neighborhood, what people used to say about me: "I'm just quiet." This caused the asker to roll eyes upward and say something to the effect of, "You are just so weird!"the final epithet tortured into multiple syllables. I knew from such encounters that the old answers were no longer going to work. But I was still able, for a while, to cling to those two simple sentences: I believe in one God. I am a Catholic.
Spirituality presents itself as a transcendent answer to human desire, but it is also necessarily an analogue to desire. Miguel de Unamuno in The Tragic Sense of Life culminates a long tradition of describing faith as passion, as the only end of the unappeasable thirst of being, the hunger for immortality. The "vital longing for immortality" finds its closest fleshly incarnation in sexual desire: "Thanks to love, we feel all that spirit has of flesh in it." But that is not much. For Unamuno, love is as fully suffused with tragedy as any other earthly condition. In spite of the hopeful ardency of Unamuno's sermon on love"Love is the sole medicine against death, for it is death's brother"his bottom line is as starkly anatomic as Kant's description of marriage as a contract delimiting the use of a pair of genitals: "The species must renew the source of life from time to time by means of the union of two wasting individuals, by means of what is called, among protozoaria, conjugation." Sexual love, "the generative type of every other love," gives rise to suffering because it "seeks with fury, through the medium of the beloved, something beyond, and since it finds it not, it despairs."
In many spiritual traditions, it is recognized from the outset that what is sought, what is hungered for, can not be found, and spiritual quest must be seen as an end in itself. Seek, but do not find. Or, in Bonaventure's variant: Desire faith; desire not understanding. Unamuno concludes, with his characteristic gentle severity, that sexual love is an imperfect analogy for faith because it is really a form of pity, born out of an intensity of identification with one's fellow sufferers. Divine love eschews such identification: St. Teresa of Ávila addresses God erotically, not out of sexual hunger but out of an acceptance of her worldly state. Augustine imagines Adam's erections in the Garden of Eden with studious, not prurient, Interest. I first read Unamuno at eighteen, when my inner life was already very different from what it had been four years before. I recognized, without perhaps yet being able to articulate it, that the highest forms of desire were believed to surpass identification. We love God not because He is like ourselves, but because He is not, because He is unknowable. In Gravity and Grace, which I read around the same time, Simone Weil teaches much the same lesson in her meditation on desire-without-objects: "We have to go down to the root of our desire in order to tear the energy from its objects." I thought I understood this lesson, and I took it to counterbalance some of my most powerful feelings of longing, fear, and emptiness. At the same time, I knew it did not account for more basiceven, as I would have thought then, baserones. The experience I had in reading Unamuno was just another version of those barely conscious feelings of intensity from my earlier life as a Catholic, like the experience of hungrily watching the altar boys during mass. Nowhere in Unamuno, as nowhere in the Church, was anything like this experience acknowledged. Yet the unmoored intensity of feeling there, the fevered invocation of passion, the refusal to distinguish absolutely between sexual love and other kinds, the submission of suffering to an ecstatic lyricism, the intimate address, all that yearning talk of brothers!surely some acknowledgment of my own relationship to Catholicism, fraught as it was with an ever more disturbing amplitude of the prohibited identification, was to be found there. Craig was as different from Ronny and Kevin as I felt I was, in my yet-unformed state, from all three of them. Kevin and Ronny represented distinct social types in Junior-high culture, the jock and the burnout. Most of the time, I had the long hair of the burnout, but although this made me acceptable to Ronny, I let Kevin know it was more a sign of laziness than a gesture of solidarity. Nothing about me suggested even the raw materials of the jock, but Kevin thought I was funny, and my friendship with him allowed me marginally to penetrate that camp. I had not assented to social typology, and was generally regarded as a little weird, but I was in a minor way still able to traverse the classes.
My own position in junior-high culture may have been almost uniquely malleable, but what I admired about Craig was that he simply had no position there. He was not given to striking the same attitudes of superiority that certified outcasts fell back on, seeking lame revenge, as everyone instantly saw with the relentless gaze of the newly pubescent, for their own personal weirdness. Rather, Craig was above it all. The world of junior high with its rigid structures and social jockeying went on around him without attracting his notice. He was neither a player, like Kevin or Ronny, nor a vaguely tolerated reject, like me. I discovered with amazement early in our friendship that he didn't even know what a burnout was, and that, unacquainted with the word's subjection to metonymy, he thought a "jock" was what you wore in gym, though he preferred the even more literal "supporter." One Saturday afternoon his mother dropped us off at a movie, Young Frankenstein. After laughing uproariously through the first half, I noticed that Craig was sitting in perfect silence, his arms folded, a distant smile on his face. He was not bored, clearly, and he was even giving off a kind of genuine pleasure, but a pleasure lodged deep within him, the way a cat might express pleasure if purring were soundless. I felt chastened. I leaned back and folded my own arms, my laughter subsiding, and tried to imitate the quiet dignity of his demeanor. From time to time I still burst out laughing, but now the laughter brought with it the salve of shame, humility; at least I had come to know how worldly were my basest dispositions. On the way home Craig described the movie to his mother with invincible simplicity. "It was funny," he said.
A quality of purity was fully evident even in Craig's physical presence. The pressures of growth take their toll on most adolescents, and one reason that I was able to retain a certain hard-won equanimity amid the rank hysteria and casual cruelty of junior high was that I saw with clear eyes that, at least physically, no fourteen-year-old was much better than any other. For an practical purposes, my classmates constituted a richly varied gallery of physical freakseven Ronny with his stunted trunk and incongruously sinewy limbs, even Kevin with his rubbery grown-up lips pasted in the middle of a boy's facea procession of misshapen, acne-splotched figures caught in the protracted act of growing up. But Craig was possessed of a grace that pervaded his frame, which seemed otherwise untouched by the physical world. He didn't look like the strange hybrids surrounding himpart child, part adult, stranded painfully between irreconcilable conditions. Rather, he seemed to embody the line drawings of nude males I watched him sketch in the margins of his chemistry notebook during class lectures. The figures in these drawings, like Craig (as I knew from gym class), were fine-muscled and hairless. It did not seem unusual to me that Craig should be drawing such figures in his notebook. They were images of the saints, nothing but that, the saints in all their naked suffering. Yet I was conscious of the difference between his attitude as he drew and mine as I watched him draw. He drew with a kind of absent care, pencil grazing the page, stopping after every few strokes to jot a note from the lecture. The inattentiveness of his drawing was at odds with the intensity of my gaze as he manipulated his pencil with blithe agility. In spite of its frozen passivity, my gaze was voracious, as if the strokes of his pencil traversed some furrow in space-time to caress unknowingly, causing it to pulsate irresistibly, whatever part of my body corresponded to the one he drewsupple legs, sloping shoulders, small but precisely detailed nipples.
Craig's otherworldliness was not lessened by those frequent moments when he resembled other boys our age. He was in the world, necessarily, but not of it. Once he remarked how funny it was that the word embarrassed contained the words bare ass. Another time he suddenly asked, "Did you ever notice that asaparagus makes your pee stink?" I did not take these as lapses into standard adolescent crudity. I understood them as signs of a hallowed earthiness, like St. Teresa's, of a clear-eyed acceptance of the world from which he was inexorably turning away.
With this in mind, I was anxious about seeing Craig among his family. After all, my own impulses to asceticism were easy enough to sustain when I was by myself or at school, but they were routinely defeated the minute I returned to my family, with all their base earthiness, their constant jokes concerning farts, and all their other worldly dispositions. If I resolved in a solitary moment of spiritual intensity to subsist entirely on crackers and oranges, like St. Teresa, I could get through lunch, but at dinner I always fell victim to my reputation in my family as the Human Garbage Can, my plate a welcome receptacle for the leavings of my parents and my sisters, assorted items St. Teresa would no doubt have refused but that I could never resist. When Craig invited me to his house for the first time, I went in the hope that I would not be disillusioned, not find his home life too ordinary, too much like my own. The early signs did not bode well. The house was a ranch, just like the one we lived in, the only variation being in the color of its brick and the austerity of its furnishings. The living room was uncarpeted and empty except for a single sofa. Craig's older brother Barry sat, bell-bottomed, against a wall, strumming a guitar. His mother greeted me with the platitudes of a sitcom mother: "I always enjoy meeting Craigy's friends" and "You boys just go on and make yourselves at home."
What I found out, though, was that Craig's way of relating to these ordinary circumstances was in keeping with what I knew of his inner life. As for me, I may have recognized keenly what I saw as the banality of my own circumstances and their distance from those of the saints on whom we were enjoined to model ourselves, yet in spite of this recognition I could not detach myself from the world as I knew it. I could only participate in it, helplessly, convulsivelybickering passionately with sisters, desiring ardently all advertised goods, robustly consuming the boxed foods of a fallen age, the Sloppy Joes and Hamburger Helper. But Craig was no more a participant in the structures of the larger world than he was a cog in the hierarchies of junior high. He took me to the basement to play chess and to discuss the implications of the gift of tongues. He was heedless of the TV sets blaring from upstairs. He offered me Fritos but referred to them as "corn chips."
Yet, although Craig rejected the things of this world, he did so without ill spirit. Unlike me, he did not regard the materials of his everyday life as inexpressibly banal. Instead, he looked at them through eyes of cobalt blue that would have pierced if he had let them, and he saw there evidence of godliness. He did not regard the things of his daily life as obstructions to his spiritual life but as the conditions that made it possible. "Are you a Jesus freak like Craigy?" asked Barry, interrupting our talk. He stood with his guitar tucked under his arm, and when Craig looked from him to me with his familiar remote half-smile, I saw that he was interested in my answer himself. Before I could think of what to say, though, Barry lifted his guitar and sang in broken tones, "Jesus freaks, out in the streets ..." Without transition he reverted to speech: "What are you guys fagging around down here for anyway? Why don't you come upstairs and muscle in on the real world?"
"If you're lonely," Craig said, "you can stay here with us."
Barry laughed. "I'm not lonely," he said. Then in a slow, deliberate gesture, he raised his guitar and lowered it gently so that the bottom of the sound box rested on Craig's head. "Kabong!" Barry said, trilling his voice to imitate the sound of reverberation. Craig only smiled. "What a nutcase." Barry said with a fond chuckle as he tucked the guitar under his arm and shuffled away.
"It's your move," Craig reminded me.
The event was trivial, but to me it was still revelatory. How adeptlythough without machinationCraig had resisted being drawn into his brother's wrangling! With what delicate perception he had seen past the contempt that would have infuriated me to the real need beneath it, refusing the imperatives of sibling rivalry without mundane condescension. I knew that if I tried something like this on my sisters, they would tell me to knock off the holier-than-thou stuff, or would sniff the air in front of my face and ask whether the smell was that of my brain frying. But there in his identical house, Craig's was a completely different life, a completely different way of being. When his mother said good-bye, I noticed that her sitcom-speak had edged off into a kind of sour, uneasy concern over the clear intensity of our engagement with each other. "What were you boys doing down there all that time?" she murmured. It was the kind of invasive parental question that, when my own mother asked such questions, made me flush with resentment, anger, and embarrassmenta reminder that I was after all only a boy in a fallen world. But Craig's tranquil smile persisted as I stepped out into the early dusk, starting home. On a muggy night in early fall Craig and I slept outside in a little red pup tent pitched in his backyard. The moon was full, so the tent's sheer walls were palely aglow, crimson, holding in dense humidity. We lay side by side, inner arms touching, my left arm brushing softly against his right arm each time we breathed. "Do you think Christ knew He was God?" Craig asked. It was not a question I had considered before, and as always I was happy to listen to what he thought, hoping he would not notice the vacancy of my own responses. He laid out the issues carefully, with passionate reason, showing me why it was an important question without seeming to instruct me, without patronizing me. The son of God, Christ was God, yet He was expected to provide to men a model for faith, proving that faith can be found within the realm of the divine as well as in the world of the human. "It's not just that God understands faith," said Craig. "He made it, so of course He understands it, but even more than that, He can share it. He's what you're supposed to have faith in, but He has faith too, see? He wouldn't ask us to have what He couldn't share Himself. So He made Christ a creature of faith, who knew He was God only because He had faith, and who could even doubt, so God could know doubt. Like when Christ asked on the cross, `Why have you forsaken me?'"
I listened raptly. I could tell from the rhythmic pressure of his arm on mine, each of its hundreds of minute hairs making me tingle with its glancing contact, that his breathing was regular, as even as his reason. I tried to control my own breathing, measuring it against an expanding sensation in my chest that compressed and shortened each breath. "I'm hot," Craig said suddenly, and then he was leaning over me, bristly knees pressed against my arm where his arm had been. He drew his gray tee shirt over his head. He dropped the shirt in a bundle in the only available space, on the other side of my head. His chest floated above my face. I breathed in its heat. His torso blocked the light from me for a second so that his chest was the color of darkness. The crucifix suspended from his neck hung before my eyes, glinting when it caught the light. The base of his palm, where it curved into his wrist, pressed against the tent's floor next to my ear, supporting his weight as he leaned over me. It occurred to me that he remained there, his body suspended above mine, a moment longer than was necessary. Then he settled down again beside me, naked. "Now," he said. "Where were we?"
I do not remember how the idea of conversion was introduced into our talks, but we began to discuss it soon after. Its appearance as a topic of our earnest conversations came by degrees, unnoticeable but somehow inevitable, like the slow appearance of the sun near the close of a cloud-choked day. Had he brought it up, motivated by the missionary zeal of the Baptist? If so, none of that zeal was evident as we talked about it. For him, the possibility of my conversion was simply an answer to a question, a step toward, not renewed, but new faith. I had recently had my confirmation as a Catholic, but Craig explained that confirmation implies a false equation between natural and spiritual birth in reaffirming in a state of knowledge the baptism that takes place in infancy. Regeneration, however, is chosen freely by a self-conscious penitent, and salvation follows without reference to anterior spiritual states. For Craig it was a simple matter. He wanted everyone to be saved; therefore he wanted me to be saved. For me it was simple too. I regarded conversion as a potential bond with Craig, a way of creating, by asserting, some elemental connection between us; or, to put it another way, of declaring that, through Craig, I had chosen asceticism as my destiny, so long as it meant I might spend occasional nights in tents with Craig's spectral body hovering, even for only a second at a time, above my face.
Meet the Author
James Morrison is an Associate Professor of Film and English at North Carolina State University. He is the author of Passport to Hollywood: Hollywood Films, European Directors, and his work has been widely published in anthologies, magazines, and journals. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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