We were natives. We were cool, urban sophisticates who would never admit to being otherwise. If anyone asked, we were from New York City, even though we’d been raised in the suburban sprawl—my cousin was from Jersey and I was from the Island. He and I had legitimized ourselves as New Yorkers by boasting we’d never been to any tourist attractions—The Empire State Building, The Twin Towers, Ellis Island and The Statue of Liberty. We played sick during our high school field trips, thus fulfilling our true native criteria. We could put on the New York accent when we needed to, emulating our parents Brooklyn upbringings, and just as easily we retreated into voices which had no trace of regionalism, like TV newscasters reporting on storm clouds entering the New York metropolitan area.
Scott lives in Florida now, working for Continental Airlines. He flew south to come out, to walk arm and arm with drag queens. With 5,000 miles between Scott and his mother, she no longer pulls him home by the ear, telling him to straighten up, insisting he see the psychiatrist again. I live in the city, in an apartment in Chelsea the size of a thimble. It is perfect, I tell my cousin, it is exactly where you should be living. There are men everywhere, all of them have flocked here, to this small cement radius where they can be themselves. Scott says that he will never live in Chelsea; it is too close in proximity to my aunt’s wagging finger, just a few stops away on New Jersey Transit. I tell him my apartment sits between a tanning salon and the Rawhide leather bar. The coffee shop down the block, Big Cup, might as well be called Big Cock with all the cruising that goes on. Forget Continental, I tell Scott, forget the friendly skies. Come up here and visit me in Chelsea.
After months of hemming and hawing, my cousin finally does, but he brings his boyfriend, Chad, along. Living in Florida, a day must not go by
when this guy isn’t teased about his name. What kind of name is Chad? It’s a flake of paper. And it’s also my cousin’s boyfriend.
I press the buzzer to let them in. I live on the fifth floor of a walk-up and meet them halfway down the stairs, with two glasses of water in my hands. Scott and Chad are already panting from the climb. We pause on the landing, where they drink the water down in long, heavy gulps. After we hug and kiss Chad says to me, “this is so exciting! My first time in a tenement walk-up!” I am not sure whether to be insulted by the word tenement, or not. Chad is a milk-fed Midwesterner; blue eyes, blonde hair, clean cut, with a baseball cap. He is riddled with a wholesome enthusiasm which natives cannot stand, though Scott always had a weakness for the all-American type. Growing up, he’d watch the baseball games with my uncle on TV, feigning an interest in sports. But to my cousin baseball was as good as porn; he’d compare the players butts and abs, all in a silent symphony skipping through his homosexual head, with a bag of potato chips between himself and his dad, snoring on the couch next to him.
As we walk through the door Chad and Scott are visibly shocked my the
size of my apartment. “Look at that tiny TV! Our condo is three times the
size of this place,” they say in unison, throwing their hands up in the air.
“Plus, we’ve got a view of the ocean.” They sip the rest of their water and stare at my apartment’s four narrow walls. I attempt to legitimize my existence by describing the Rawhide, and the Big Cock, and other points of interest, but Scott interrupts and says, “we were hoping to go to sleep early tonight. Chad is just dying to see the Statue of Liberty tomorrow.”
The disgust on my face was surely apparent. Had Scott forgotten who we were? Granted, we had our secret suburban affinities—he for Bruce Springsteen and I for Billy Joel—but we had vowed, not one tourist attraction, ever. Why couldn’t Chad run off to the Statue by himself tomorrow, with his Instomatic swaying around his neck, while Scott and I explored the inner workings of Rawhide over cocktails, stuffing bills deep down into go-go- boys’ stringy thongs. But Scott, it seemed, was sincerely interested in going to the Statue of Liberty—he was obviously dumb and blind with love. Absolutely stricken. It could have been worse—at least this Chad didn’t insist we take in a Broadway matinee afterwards.
We arrived at the Statue at the crack of dawn, though the line to get in was already long; it snaked ceremoniously around the base, the Statue looming above. It was humiliating to be seen with all of these tourists; I hoped it was obvious I wasn’t one of them. They pressed against one another, attempting to get one inch closer, and their humid body heat was stifling. I took off my black leather jacket, my native skin peeled from my back, and tied it around my waist, where the leather hung, awkward and defeated.
“I want to take a picture of you two,” Chad said. “Get together, with your arms around each other. That’s good, with the Statue behind you.”
“It’s almost over,” I said to Scott sadly. “You are I, we won’t be natives anymore. We’re about to be exposed, for the true suburbanites that we are. Let’s say cheese now, let’s surrender ourselves.”
Scott whispered in my ear, “When I get back to Florida I’ll rip up the photo. Chad will never know, I promise.” My deep-seated love for my cousin was beginning to rekindle.
“Smile! One more time!” I showed some teeth to Chad’s camera, and then it was all over.
The line split in two as we got closer. We could take the elevator—a logical choice, I thought—or climb all 216 stairs to the crown; a web of metal and glass which looked like it could crumble away in an instant, leaving us to dangle from an eroding copper beam. But the day’s decisions were clearly not my own; they were Chad’s. Scott fawned on him, relenting with a syrupy goo to anything Chad wanted to do. For all I knew Chad would insist we skinny dip in the Atlantic afterwards and Scott would be the first to rip off his clothes, ready to dive into the putrid, oily water.
“Let’s climb the stairs,” Chad said, “let’s have the true Statue of Liberty experience!” Scott shook his head in agreement, not even bothering to get a glimpse of my disgusted facial expression.
And so, we climbed. We counted each step as we went along. It was a slow ascent, but I was a good climber from living in a walk-up. With each step I studied the statue’s walls, the internal workings, all the rivets connecting each bit of copper. It was like the skin of a body turned inside out—it was beautiful—though I feigned lack of interest by yawning. Scott peered out a window to the glinting ocean below, then whispered in my ear, “Are you afraid of heights too? I’m starting to feel sick.” Sure enough, Scott was turning green, not unlike the oxidized copper pallor of Lady Liberty. “Let’s sing a song,” I said, “Maybe it will get your mind off of it. How about some Billy Joel?” My my my my Sharona. Scott chimed in after me, My my my my Sharona! , and from there we flipped to a completely different tone, I’m taking a Greyhound on the Hudson River line—I’m in a New York state of mind…
The stairs began to narrow as we ascended higher and higher, until a rather precarious looking spiral staircase was before us. My cousin, when he saw what lay ahead, began to panic. “It hate spiral staircases. I don’t… I….”
“Don’t be such a sissy,” Chad said, and pinched Scott’s butt until he flinched. It seemed that sissy was a word Chad used on him before. I had to admit, it fit.
There was a guy climbing behind us who was about our age, getting a kick out of our Billy Joel renditions. I had caught him humming along with Scott and I to the Uptown Girl chorus. He looked a bit like my cousin; tall, thin, and slightly effeminate. Suddenly my cousin stopped in his tracks, his pallor had shifted from green to white, and gripped both hands to the banister. “I don’t know if I can keep this up. I am starting to feel nauseous.”
The guy standing behind us ventured a bit closer and said to Scott, “I know how you feel.”
“Really?” Scott said, brightening a little. “You don’t think I’m a sissy?”
Chad hadn’t even noticed that my cousin and I were no longer behind him. He continued to climb, his body disappearing into the spiral with a macho urgency, as if he were on the cusp of Everest.
“You are NOT a sissy ,” the guy said. Looking Scott straight in the eyes
he asked, “Is this your first time inside of a woman?”
There was a beat of hesitation before Scott nodded. I nodded too. The guy said, “Yeah, same here,” and we all laughed at the realization, that this
tourist attraction had taken on sexual connotations. We weren’t virgins any longer. I wondered, was this guy making the moves on my cousin? I wasn’t sure. Scott continued to hold tight to the banister, with a sickening expression on his face, while the people behind us urged us to keep moving forward. I said to my cousin, “Want to get the hell out of here?”
Scott screamed up to Chad, “We’ll meet you at the bottom!”
“Sissy!” Chad bellowed back, and this time that word seemed to sting Scott a little. We pushed and shoved our way down against the upward momentum of the camera totters. We were irritating the tourists, we were causing slight havoc. I had hopes that we would get into trouble for this; that some
Statue of Liberty official in a blue cap would pull us aside and scold us. I could see that Scott was as pleased as I was with this small gesture of rebellion; it proved that we were not one of the throng; we were still natives, at least to one another.