Young man as an altar boy.
I heard from somebody that only what is dead can be fully understood. I guess there are so many Art movements and isms which can attest to that. And yet, austerities of Catholic life are discussed to such lengths you could be forgiven for thinking of it as being something dead. Of course Catholicism is still alive, that is if you grew up in my house. My father brutalised the family with the idea of what being Catholic is. No one could laugh at it, no one could express boredom, no one could play with it, no one could explore, no one could engage in any activity that showed development or growth that was independent. And no one could ask what being a Catholic will be if you consider what I heard once from somebody.
I remember the first time I discovered the macabre paintings from Di Vince, Rembrandt and El Greco being with my mother on her gallery trips. But it was when I discovered the world of Andy Warhol, I went there whenever possible, on my own. They were stories about life; that show us we are someone we are something, not someone here but something. Then when I discovered the world of cinema, I didn’t think about the world of Jesus dying for our sins. I didn’t think of what it felt like as a child dragged out of my friend’s house down the street and buying a new suit to wear to my first communion. I didn’t think of my father charging up the stairs and throwing my boyfriend out of our home and into the street and I didn’t have to think of the tears that came out of my boyfriend’s eyes and I didn’t have to think of my mother watering her plants when my father did these things. In the cinema I found new ways of looking at life. Through time and space, I imagined a world cinematically. I constructed worlds made of images and montages, flash backs, flash forwards, jump cuts and loops. I had a new vocabulary with which to apply. My life became spoilt, spoilt because of my imagination.
As I grew older, my imagination grew with me, and things started to be affected by thought processes and reflection. As I grew older, my ideas of Catholicism had become less monumental and more as something that had died. Words become interesting. Words affected memory. Words described the indescribable. Words stripped trees of its bark. Words acknowledged the unacknowledged and made the invisible visible, shaking the illusory powers of the mob mentality. I learnt that silence is a killer. Silence dismantles our identity. And silence makes it harder for feelings to return.
One day I shared my stories as we left class early and headed over to the church. The other boys thought I was mad because of its ‘peep show qualities’. Like it was some kind of dirty little fantasy I had concocted, getting a kick out of shocking them while satisfying my desires. It wasn’t a peep show I thought because a peep show is likely to frustrate. And I don’t like to be frustrated. I don’t like looking at images through small holes. No, in this story, its magic comes more via imagination than blatant nudity. I mean, it is purely a visual memory, with little punctuation and poor grammar and it is very much experimental, as such, it requires imagination and belief… a belief in the imagination and all its impossibilities. But to think we were taught by anti-porn Christians who have always been surrounded by Greek sculpture, Renaissance and Baroque paintings, which they are used to looking at, yet they have always been visual illiterates.
For the next hour we would be serving morning Mass at the St Michaels Catholic Church, an honourable assignment that filled our parents with pride. It is not a conventional story. It has no interest in verisimilitude whatsoever. It has nothing in the way of dialogue, plot or character development. What it gives you is a tantalising, provocative invitation to let the sounds and images wash over you as if you are in a dream, like my bullfighting fantasy where the bull is Father Patrick dressed in leather riding on a motorcycle and me as the matador where the whole scene looks like it could have been filmed by Warhol himself.
As we prepare, one of the boys scoffed, “I remember when Father Patrick was my maths teachers. He walked around, always dressed to his position, always smiling at everyone.” We all ignored him but he continued, “This is one place you won’t find me when I’m older, in this place. Think about it, I love helping others. Besides from helping others, his motives are insidious.” I wondered if he really meant to degrade all of us. Then I wondered if he was someone who had to struggle to be thoughtful about everything he says, as he jumps from one snarky comment to the next.
My stories are lit almost exclusively by pink lights and back then where I was the youngest of all the altar boys, I was most definitely what you would define as a narcissist, masturbating while gazing at his own perfect reflection in the mirror. Aside from one money shot where I ejaculated right into the Priest’s eyes, the actual sex is only hinted at. Oh, the power of suggestion. I don’t think I’ve ever imagined the male body with such reverence, except perhaps when Paul Morrissey pointed his lens at Joe D’Alessandro. This is eroticism taken to the level of high art, with close ups on the body so abstract they turn the male body into a beautiful landscape.
As we dutifully arranged the communion wafers in a brass bowl, poured the red wine into crystal pitchers and draped the cloth over a large gold chalice. The boys wanted everything to be just right. I continued with my story, moving slowly at its own dream like pace. A fantasy that is prettier than advertising imagery. My obvious self love and the obsessive qualities of my fantasy see me play the role of the slave to my master the Priest. Searing bright colours unite and increase the dreamy feeling. There is no dialogue it would probably ruin the dream. At a casual glance it can appear as little more than a series of beautiful, erotic and obscure imagery. But it is much more than that. I am an altar boy, trapped in a surreal hell- an environment that is artificial, manufactured and unnatural. The city outside of his church is even more devoid of nature, or life, with its zombie like creatures stumbling around, looking to either buy, or sell sexual favours. I retreat into a candy coloured world, where I serve only Father Patrick as he becomes my storybook heroes; Arabian Sheiks, Matadors and Roman Emperor. As altar boy, I am the ultimate servant, using my own idea of beauty when imagining what these characters look like. I imagine myself in blazing, fantastic colour, accompanied by an eclectic and haunting array of music.
The others work in silence, their motions second nature by this time. As I play out each set piece of my fantasy, a familiar image returns repeatedly- scenes in nature, trees and flowers and living creatures, drenched in sunlight, soaked in rain, an environment that is the polar opposite of the concrete and neon hellhole in which I am imprisoned. I have fantasies of nature, which are the most beautiful and truly erotic sections of the fantasy, suggest a desire to return to something natural and real, in other words a return to innocence. I have a moment where I am behind the church penetrating the earth, by lying on the ground and sticking my penis into the soil. And the dark, apocalyptic climax, where the same ground swallows me into its underground depths in an inferno of driving rain and thunder, and I find himself back in my room, as Father Patrick becomes my new customer who lets himself inside to be serviced. Does my mind represent some kind of hell? The great thing about my fantasy is that it raises questions like that, and forces me to think, and to wonder. When a fantasy can accomplish that, it transcends sexual gratification and becomes something else. It becomes art. Art born of harmony, gushing from chaos, a recurring dream that repeat itself with little variation and theme. It dazzles a little more each time.
My Body. Dressed. Undressed. Power supposedly male, masculine with master-slave relations that turns into pure sexual slavery. With the Romans, show me your goods and let me be brutal, probably with death at the end. Arabian with many veils, seven or more, dances, pearls and jewels. Then there is the Sultan who is watching, desiring and assessing. It is all pictorial titillation and substitutive contacts with the aforesaid pearls and other objects, veiled at the least even if only in a French letter. Then we can move to the modern bordello, the red light district, quite more explicit and so much explicit that it becomes sickeningly fascinating. The elements, storm, thunder, lightning, rain, day and night are used as representations of desire and satisfaction, pleasure and ecstasy. I find the sex I want in Baroque choral music and leaves in the shape of penises. My sexual satisfaction is purely mental, inside my soul, substitutive of explicit physical contact. I finally make it up into a frontal view revealing myself completely walking through wind, leaves, litter and multifarious ever changing colors to what appears my goal: the coat hanger of the beginning. The eye can merge with the light. I am back in the bordello area, in my bed, in my pants that I take off to sleep in front of the mirror and dream of a bowler-hatted, overcoat, umbrella, city banking sugar grand daddy who can enter since he has the key but my face is revealed dreaming of meeting my only love affair and desired human being, myself. I blow and break the mirror. The image disappears and kind of turns into a spider web in nature with a caterpillar crawling along a branch. I am back to where I started, minus the moon. “I’ve grown so lonesome thinking of you,” He said.
Then footsteps, dress shoes clacking down the stairs leading to the sacristy. Monsignor walked in, dressed in his usual black pants and shirt, clerical collar and dark cardigan. The other boys become anxious. He seems to ignore them. Without a word, he closes the door we all back up against the wall, shoulder to shoulder. He lingers at the door, but sure enough, he comes toward us, as we separate. I retreat with small steps and bump into a mirror. I turn and see my image. In this mirror my gestures do not reflect mine. I creep up to it, mistrustful. My image is standing to attention, and I move towards it. My Image copies me. I bring my hand up, nervously touching my right earlobe. My Image does the same. I bring my clenched fist toward the mirror and punched my Image in the head before he could move, swaying back. I step back and the Image comes towards me, emerging from the mirror. We face each other before I make way towards it. The Image takes off. After a while, with our backs turned, we brushed arms once or twice before we kiss. We hold each other, rarely letting go, and at the point of uniting, Father advances. As soon as Father grabs me, we are defeated and separate. He draws us apart. Me and the Image dance with Father Patrick. It is a frenetic dance, revolving in perpetual circles, taking in turns with each other while the other boys look dazed and confused. Lastly, Father Patrick pursues me, leaving the Image to observe from across the room, while we dance before thrusting me with a knife. As Father stands over me, I am terrified, bowing my head, I attempt to apologise, murmuring to an increasingly fast rhythm, until exhausted, losing my grip, I continue a sort of miserable rant, an apology to the other boys and to Father. With just minutes before Mass was due to begin Father countered with a genuine smile, “He shouldn’t apologise. Why the hell are you people giving him attention anyways? Why aren’t you doing something useful with your time? You should all apologise for wasting precious time and stealing his attention.”
We stand to attention, staring beyond Father’s head at a cross on the wall. There is a story about the lightness of my position that masked so much Catholicism heavy handedness connected to being someone like me. I wondered about the long term trauma where this cross fits into my history, and I’m guessing the other boys would be confused as to why I would bother to embark on the process of remembering. Confounding and haunted. But I have to put these stories behind so I could cope. So I could survive. And although it is haunting, I secretly wished to put it all behind me. Powerful stories from the past, that someone imagined would inspire me or someone else in this group of altar boys. I wanted them to make a difference, a difference in my life and in my community. So I remember with hope that they reveal the lightness of my world. Memories and myths of stories I engage in with my imaginations, and with which to understand incomprehensible things that have been created.
But preparations for my crucifixion are already being carried out. To make gaps in my beauty, to look carefully at my structure as Father strips bare as my hands which are tied to a cross. His face delights in holding the leather strap as he steps closer. The belt consists of many measured, strips of metal detail standing along its entire length as he motions, directs and brings down with great force again and again across my shoulders, back and legs.
The beatings come to an end, ceasing as in a course or journey, I am near death, decided upon by the soldier in charge, as you find the un-noted cracks which form the opening in the not yet beautiful landscape. It is determined by the act or process of collaboration, willingly occupied by our communion between the processes of the human mind and the world. And to widen the gaps and to plant ideas here. And allow ideas to flourish. And so flourish across time and space; endlessly, eternally, always.
The heavy beam of the cross, a structure, a symbol, as two intersecting lines is then tied across my shoulders, begin the procession. As a condemned altar boy along with the thieves who are alongside me begins our slow journey, from one stage to another, where the weight of the heavy beam, together with the exuberant blood loss, is too much, overwhelming. I stumble and fall, and drop. The rough, uneven surface wood of the beam gouges the skin of my shoulders. I try, attempt subject to strain, affliction and trouble to rise, but my human body has been pushed beyond its endurance.
I remember the sun… I remember the garden… I remember the church… I remember the day. Explanations are not required. I just remember when the mask was ripped and the silence broken- the darkness, the world was in total darkness, absent and deficient of light. I was hung up on that petty cross while the sunny skies of Jerusalem darkened for three hours, from the sixth to the ninth hour, from noon to midafternoon. Upon the cross, high above the line all of the people’s vision, I remember looking to the skies to discover a moon of blood, lavish and enthusiastic, with an extravagantly reddish color of the light refracted onto the moon through the Earth’s atmosphere. This darkness calls, and appears to everyone without notice or warning, without reason. I see an eclipse of the sun, taking place as the moon comes under the sun. This magnificent obscuration of light and its intervention with the earth is a phenomenon seen from far away. Its splendour and status was visible from Jerusalem… first seen, available and accessible to the eye in Jerusalem.
I didn’t want to go home. Not straight away. So I turn and walk in the other direction, even though I am terrified and excited at the same time. I’ve never really noticed how empty the streets are at this time of the night, it’s like something out of a dooms day movie where everyone has been threatened by some kind of war, nuclear explosion or plague except me. I keep thinking about the incident back at the church. Being an altar boy always makes me feel like I’m wearing a costume, highlighting my lack of uniformity, making me to feel like I have to fit in and following the rules. It never allows me to explore who I am. God help me if I should fail and fall out of line. I just keep walking. Sometimes when I’m walking the streets I think so hard I can make the sky turn into a storm. Rain can go back into clouds like a movie running backwards or make footpaths crack open and windows shatter. Sometimes when I’m frustrated I like to imagine I can walk through people on the street. When people get in my way I wish I could walk straight through them, like driving a car at 200 kilometres per hour up and down the street, over dunes and hills then into another street and then another.
It was a hot summer night as I stood on the corner of Chapel street in St Kilda east, making my way down Alma road to the park. A friend of mine has been here and told me the park is full of good looking guys who frequent it for action. I wasn’t interested in morals. I was horny. There is an area inside with lots of trees and paths where guys are cruising. Real men who walk real slow, checking each other out as they pass each other out. I keep walking until I see the park on the other side of the road. There is a car parked at the entrance and a driver sits inside. I watch him enter the park before I decide to go over. My friend had explained that there are many unspoken rules that guide men to intimacy with other men. I began thinking about this. It was a fantasy that usually goes like this: I notice him. And he notices me. I look at him. He is attracted to me. He is cute. He thinks about being only with cute guys. I still find cute. He thinks about what it is like to be with messed up altar boys. I look away. I look back we meet each other’s eyes. He realises, I recognise his realisation. He freaks out. I freak out. He looks away. I panic. I have two choices: do nothing or say hello. I say nothing because I fantasise. I think it’s not worth it. I assume. I judge that it’s not worth it. My fears take hold, masked by indifference, coolness and qualitative methods of carelessness. Sometimes I wish I was a lesbian instead. Lesbians seemed to be more organised, like organised groups that travel well together, all over the world. Lesbians seem to wear their minority status well, like badges of honour that even men, any kind of man at least acknowledges. Their minority labels sit proudly and magnificently on their not for men boobs.
The guy walks into the small clearing surrounded by bushes where there is sandy walking tracks and lit by a few lampposts. Prepared to go one step further, and to some silly level understand the complexity and simplicity of who I am driven by a liberal dose of self confidence, I enter the park. It’s dark as hell but my eyes adjust, there is enough light for me to see the guy step behind a tree and looks for me so I turn and start walking towards the guy. I nervously enter the clearing and suddenly, the sound of a distant voice makes me panic. All I could think about was the police. I spin around and lose my footing. I manage to squeeze out an apology as I walk out of the clearings and back into the night. Out of the corner of my eye I can see something moving and as I turn around there is a group of guys running in all directions towards the guy standing under the tree in the clearing in a pool of light. I scream run run and move like hell across the park towards a tall fence which separates the park from the road. I run with all my might over broken bits of trees and rock and leap onto the fence, pulling myself up and over onto the road and I look back. There is a guy standing on the other side looking at me, holding a rough uneven surfaced piece of wood, the size of a baseball bat in his hands. I look over to the clearing and the other guys have succeeded in seizing the guy under the tree. I watch them all lift their hands and strike the guy at the same time. There is no sound. It is silent as I run off down Alma road back toward Chapel Street.
I never go to the hospital. Last time I was there, my uncle had been admitted after a car accident. Mum packed a small overnight bag with some clothes and went there and met dad. I was younger and didn’t know how bad it really was. When my uncle died, my brother quickly took me for a walk on the grounds, as my mother wept inside. Bright, flowers, roses, hearts, in rich colours, boxes of real flowers, dream like sit along the window ledge and bedside table. I can hear spiritual, ethereal and angelic like faint sighs of the Gods, as he is wheeled into the room but looks something vivid, reminiscent of a Mexican deity, laden with fairy lights and prettified to an artistic extreme. He is graceful and unspoken. As I sit in the chair, calm and still, he comes around from the back of bed, his body all bloodied and bruised. I have never seen anything like this before, this is the first time. Father doesn’t have the classic priest look instead sports messy parted hair with bandages around his head and neck, and a faraway look which makes him unrecognisable. He is the image of a regular guy, one that you might recognise begging down the street. But he is characterised by elegance and manner superior in form, no longer reflecting a past that has been lost but pushing to strive for equality and power for the future. Slowly his eyes make their way around the room, eventually, at the final point, at last appear on me. I make my way over to him immediately, when reaching halfway across the room I notice plant boxes of roses in bloom. Blooming, fresh, fragrant and open, I attempt to pick one but was unable, it was no longer real but instead it was art- painted, carved and embroidered.
I didn’t think looks were important, until Father almost lost the feature I like most about him. He had to have surgery, which means he may lose feeling on the side of his face. He might not be able to smile. I always thought that when doctors delivered bad news, they used savvy tech driven vocabulary delivered in a matter of fact manner. My voice broke. I had come to him thinking if I hadn’t have ran off, there would be no bruises, scars and bumps on his face. No diagnoses and no doctors. I trembled in fear and guilt thinking his smile would be removed because Father had always been a smiler. Every class picture shows him grinning. Smiling was his secret weapon for getting me through those nerve-racking years and successfully passing exams when I couldn’t be bothered. It was only a few weeks before I went to set up for mass. In the sacristy, I was standing next to him. He smiled at me. I smiled back. But when he turned away, I stopped smiling.
I stood in the hospital room and I was frantic, nervously talking to myself. A theme appears. There is doubt. I question my relationship with the Priest, particularly in a world where giving life to thought might mean letting ideas evolve, reconfigure and advance independently. As I wait for the curtains to part, there are sounds of dripping taps, traffic, bees swarming, and a bad weather forecast. I hear a voice describing the impact of an earthquake, news of a tsunami morphs into a voice reading from a romance novel, an evangelist talking about salvation, bins crashing, drops of water falling, an advertisement on the telly that speeds up then slows down, a police siren, a cop movie, drops of water. Then SILENCE… The wind, a train moving through the underground, channel surfing, kids screaming on a train, a violin, footy commentators on the radio, two dogs barking, Irish music, and church bells ringing from afar. My mind was racing. Thoughts collide with each other, fragmented ideas which wrestle with the fears, contradictions and exaggerated heaviness of youth. I started thinking about how I could quit school, and avoid all public outings. He let me babble. Slowly he makes his way around the room, stopping in front of me, a few feet from the seat. When I gave him a chance to talk, he whispers, “Everything will be OK.” I did my best to believe him.
Because of the surgery, Father Patrick lost some feeling in his ear but he has complete use of his eyes and lips. His smile works perfectly. He has a three inch scar near his jaw. It’s light pink, curving up from his jaw to the ear. He said he will have to wear sunscreen to protect it. I said if it gets a little redder, it will look just like a little smile. He said that he wouldn’t mind that. I’ve learned that smiles shouldn’t be taken for granted. I remember exiting by the huge entrance of the hospital, catching my reflection in its flowing curtain of glass, seeing my own gestures, once shaped by my own lived experience. It grows like I grow, future orientated, a contradiction of now and what is resisted, of movements, of myself and of the other and what is being presented. I see a figure walk past the window, his smile beaming an understanding and joy. Everything was beautiful. He lifts his hand up, waves to me as I walk towards the tram stop. There is silence… I can hear nothing but an echo of an empty drum become louder and more rhythmic as the light above closes in, becoming smaller until it fades to night.