We stayed with Lee G.’s friends at Murrells Inlet that week, just down the road from Myrtle Beach. The hub around which the whole thing turned was his friend Sheila, whose parents rented the beach house and served as chaperones. Aside from introductions and a nice conversation about the ride from Spartanburg I don’t remember seeing them the entire week.
Sheila was Lee G.’s best friend from smart camp. I don’t know what the camp was really called — I simply knew it as smart camp. Every summer since we met back in the fifth grade, Lee G. disappeared for a couple of weeks and did smart things with Sheila while I tooled around the neighborhood doing dumb things. While they played chess and discussed existentialism I was denting my dirt bike’s gas tank with my crotch (true story), sneaking beers with Ricky Brent, or fumbling around inside the outerwear or whatever young lady was generous enough to grant me backstage access. Also, Atari: Atari and television — daytime reruns of The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, game shows and my sisters’ (later Sherri’s) soap operas. Yeah, that’s right: I don’t know trigonometry but I know who Frisco Jones was. Now who do you want on your trivia team? Take that, Sheila.
I was jealous of both Sheila and smart camp. Lee G. had been my best friend since shortly after my family moved to South Carolina. I don’t know why we clicked, but we did.
That’s not really true. Although Lee G. was by far my intellectual superior, he was kind and funny and quite generous. He was one in a long line of friends and muses extending from childhood to this very moment who are too kind and supportive ever to let me feel — much less wallow in — my lack of natural gifts. These are people who have a confidence in me that I don’t have in myself, and weak though it might be to admit it they keep me moving forward when the fear and anxiety are running hot and the self-esteem is running low.
Sheila and smart camp were threats to my life line. Why would Lee G. want to hang out with a dumb Guy In Black Tee Shirt Who Jammed after communing with his own kind? And the way he talked about Sheila — obviously she was the summer me. It was only a matter of time before he realized that she was soft and smelled good, and then I’d be out.
Every summer I went through this little internal drama, and now after my greatest achievement I was going to spend a week in the House of Sheila. She brought a couple of others with her to complete her entourage. There was Tim, a male model from Atlanta with jet black hair and a gymnast’s build. He spent the week in crisp white tank tops, oversized cargo shorts, and Doc Marten eight-eyes. “This is all stuff from the Post-Nuclear Holocaust Fashion Show I was just in. The designer let me keep it.” I wish I knew who that designer was. He or she predicted grunge fashion by a good five years.
Sheila, Tim, and Lee G. hung tightly for the entire week. Sheila’s parents did whatever they were doing. That left Matt and me alone most of the time with Sheila’s other friend, Chris. He wasn’t exclusively a Sheila friend, though. As we got to know each other I realized that this was Chris from smart camp, another character in Lee G.’s summer stories.
Chris was one of those people who blend into the background until I spot them, but once I do I can’t see anyone else. Once Sheila and Tim stepped out of the room and took all of the attention with them this slouchy, skinny, smiling boy magically appeared. Underneath his buffalo plaid shirt he wore a tank top, but unlike Tim’s this one barely clung to his bony, almost feminine shoulders. His neck was so thin that it called in reinforcements in the form of a long ponytail that kept his head in balance. His bangs were long, too, stopping at the tip of his chin. Chris periodically twitched his head, drawing the black curtain of hair back to its rightful place covering one half of his face. He finished the look with a pair of baggy white pants similar to Tim’s cargo shorts, but they were full length and pegged at the ankles with snaps that he didn’t bother fastening.
There we stood in our rented living room, three total strangers. He grinned his shy and bracey grin. “I like your hair,” he said.
“Thanks. It’s supposed to look like Bowie’s.”
“Yours is, too.”
“Well, what do you want to do?” Matt and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders. “Do y’all want to go down to the beach?”
“Yeah, let’s go find some girls.”
Matt laughed. “You don’t want to chase girls with this one. He cheats.”
“Hey, I let you pick first,” I said. “It’s not my fault that you are blind.”
Chris smiled his cryptic little Buddha smile. “Cool, let’s go,” he said.
We walked onto the fine sand of Murrells Inlet and Chris cuffed his baggy pants at the knees. “Your tan is funny,” he said.
I looked at my legs: dark brown beginning just above the knees, then pale white until they disappeared beneath my cutoffs. “That’s from the cycling shorts,” I said.
“No secrets in those things,” he said, and Matt laughed.
“You have to wear them for the chamois.”
“What’s a shammy?”
“It’s like a pad in the butt.”
“That’s cool. i thought they were for aerodynamics.”
“Maybe, but I wear them for the chamois.”
“I’d wear them because they look cool,” Chris said.
We heard a distant yell over the rushing waves, turned to see Lee G. walking toward us with Sheila and Tim. Tim held Lee G.’s boom box, and as they neared INXS’s “I Send A Message” grew audible.
“Oh my God, are you wearing cutoffs?” Sheila asked me.
“What’s wrong with cutoffs?”
“Nothing. If you’re a redneck.”
“They look good on you,” Chris said. “If I had legs like that I’d wear cutoffs, too.”
“What are y’all doing?” Lee G. asked.
“We just got down here. What are y’all doing?” Matt said.
“Walking around. Hanging out.”
“What’s that out there?” Tim asked.
“I think it’s a jetty,” Chris said.
“No way! We should go dance on it, like the song. Think we could?”
“Not if Robert Smithson built it,” Lee G. said, and everyone laughed except Matt and me.
“Hold on,” Tim said, and he fumbled with the cassette deck’s fast forward and play buttons until “Dancing On the Jetty” was cued up. Watch the world argue / argue with itself, Michael Hutchence half-whispered, and then that trademark clean, slicing Farriss guitar sound filled the air and Tim was off. The guy even danced like a model, with complete awareness of where his body was at all times, as if a full-length mirror was positioned in front of him.
Sheila was going now, too, a sort of pixie dervish — arms flailing, feet kicking up sand, spinning and leaping. Chris pulled his elbows tightly to his sides, fists balled just below his chin. His movements were small but elegant, sheepishly sexy, as if he was holding back. Lee G. was in there, too, doing his uninhibited Lee G. thing while Michael sang and the Farriss brothers rang.
Matt and I watched like a couple of stupid white boys in cutoffs. Chris motioned for us to join them. We shrugged him off. Sheila whirled, Tim posed, and Lee G. did more of his Lee G. thing. Chris motioned for us again, and we declined again. Snap decision / In a moment’s glory, Michael sang, and Chris grabbed Matt’s and my arms and moved us like puppets until we danced.
It was painful, like a baby taking those first wobbly steps, but eventually I found at least some semblance of the beat and my body began to move on its own. I don’t know what I looked like — probably like a tangle of scrawny limbs twisting in the salty air. I didn’t care, though. The sun was shining, the music was loud, my feet pushed through the warm sand. People were smiling. My whole body was smiling. All of those years wasted standing around looking cool while everybody else danced. What a shame.
Sheila began to laugh. She stopped dancing and pointed at me. “Oh my God, you still carry a Goody comb,” she said, and she grabbed the bright red handle jutting from my back pocket. “That is so redneck,” she shrieked. Chris smiled his secret little Buddha smile, grabbed my hands and kept me moving to “The Swing.” He was right. He didn’t say a word, but he was absolutely right.
On our way back to the house Chris spotted a small plastic cowboy sticking out of the sand. It was no bigger than an army man and molded from bright pink plastic. “The pink cowboy. That sounds dirty,” he said.
Matt laughed. “Ride the pink cowboy.”
“I heard that through my deaf ear,” Chris said, and he handed me the toy.
Back at the house the three of us crowded into one of the small bedrooms. We sat on the floor, listening to the music playing in the living room.
“How long did it take you to grow your hair that long?” I asked him.
“About two years. I’m never cutting again, I don’t care. It can fall out or turn gray and I’ll be an old man with a white horseshoe ponytail.”
“It’s so cool. I wish I had cool hair.”
“You do! I could make it cooler, though, if I had my mousse.” Chris looked around the room, grabbed a bottle of Elmer’s glue and sat back down on the floor. “This will work.” He twisted the top, watched the glue run down his fingers, smiled and inhaled deeply. “Sometimes I’ll go to the pool and just -” and he inhaled again.
“You know. Chlorine.”
“What about it? Does it get you high?”
He stared at his gluey hand and smiled. “Never mind. Nothing.” Chris worked the glue into my hair, shaped and teased until my Bowie ‘do was reconfigured into some sort of asymmetrical eighties style that would have been right at home at the Post-Nuclear Holocaust Fashion show.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” I asked.
“Um, no. I went out with a girl once. We made out a little bit and she let me feel her tits. They were mushy. I don’t get it.”
“Wait. You’re gay?”
“Yeah. Is that cool?”
“I kind of figured you knew. It’s not like I hide it.”
And he didn’t, not at all. I was seventeen years old and Chris was the first openly gay person I’d ever met. My only frames of reference for homosexuality were Freddie Mercury and Elton John. In Boiling Springs, South Carolina there was no such thing as openly gay. But what really fascinated me about him wasn’t that he was openly gay but that he was openly Chris. I’d never met anyone so comfortably himself. I couldn’t imagine that there was ever a moment that he needed a friend or a muse to hold him up in fragile moments, because he had no false armature holding him up in the first place. He wore whatever he wanted to wear, did what he wanted to do, listened to whatever he liked, and all with that secret little Buddha smile.
Out in the living room we heard a car starting and then the sounds of a bubbly bass. “I love this song, come on,” Chris said, and he danced his way down the hallway. Matt and I followed like a couple of puppies. Sheila was jumping on the couch and Tim was posing to the music in his post-nuclear finery. Chris, Matt, Lee G., and I made a circle and danced our silly little dances to The Art Of Noise: moving simply for the joy of moving, each with our own secret little smile.